Another early start, but I’m getting used to it now. Before I would stumble about in the dark, trying not to disturb my wife. Tripping over pillows and discarded clothes trying to get ready in the dark. Now I’m a well-oiled machine, all packed the night before, travelling clothes left in the office, all ready to go and bags by the front door. I reckon I need only 15 minutes from waking up to in the car!! So I set the alarm for 4.00 am. Even when you are ready for it, I still struggle for the first few minutes. I blearily say goodbye to my wife, and youngest daughter and slip out of the house.
This trip is a special one, and we are off to Vietnam to make a couple of films all on the back of the current rise of this wonderful food here in the UK. We are flying to Hanoi in the north, then down to Hoi An, then onto the Mekong Delta in the south.
There is no daily direct flight to Vietnam from the UK (There is now), so we check into terminal 4 for the short Paris flight, then onto the Vietnamese flight for 10 hours. The usual scrum at the airport is miserable people, up too early, not reading the airport blurb on bag weights and size, all kicking off. Things weren’t helped by the fact French airport workers are on strike either. We eventually get through and wait patiently for our flight, after the obligatory Costa coffee, or in JD’s case, a beer, well you can’t keep an Aussie down, can you?
We arrive in Paris. The place is deserted, and quickly collect all the bags and join another long queue to check-in for the Hanoi flight. We were to meet a Mr Nam, yes real name, to check in all the camera and sound kit. He turns up eventually, and we head off to gate 8, business class check-in. We all check-in no problem, apart from Steve soundman, who is bumped down to the premium economy. He’s not happy, but hey ho, we are at work, and the upgrade was only a plus as we were going to be filming on the way back. But I can say that as I was still in business class. I offer my seat to him. He politely declines; what a nice chap.
We arrive at Hanoi airport and wait to meet our fixers Tuong and Khanh. Whilst waiting, we have a delightful, strong coffee and try to work out how the local currency equates to the pound. It’s all a bit confusing, especially when jet-lagged, but in the end, we settle on 30,000 Dong to the pound.
We pile into a large minibus and set off on the 40 minute trip to the hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi.
Tuong is engaging, polite and funny. He explains to us a brief history of Vietnam and its culture. Khanh is slightly more reserved, a slight lady and seems quite shy. We drive past the Red River and finally into downtown Hanoi to our hotel for the next 2 days.
We plan to hook up with Tuong later at 2 pm, so check in and head for a good breakfast. I was unsure what to expect from a large worldwide hotel chain in Hanoi, but the experience was excellent.
I ate steamed buns, some filled with sweet chestnut, others light and really soft—sushi, with fresh tuna and salmon. Next tasted egg fried rice and finished with chicken congee, a sort of rice porridge topped with peanuts, crisp fried onions and powerful chilli sauce. All very nice indeed, fresh, clean and not what I was expecting if I’m honest. On offer also was chicken korma, curried vegetables and teriyaki chicken. Then, finally, on the cold table cheeses, biscuits and a lovely selection of bread and cakes. Finally, I went back to the room and dropped into bed after a hot shower and a shave. I had a couple of hours of sleep and felt a lot better when I surfaced.
We spent the afternoon in the old quarter doing various pieces to camera, either walking or on Cyclos, sort of bikes with a large basket on the front you sit in, not the safest mode of transport I have ever been in. We had been warned about the traffic, but nothing prepares us for what was about to happen.
There are thousands of scooters, cars, lorries and busses and here seem to be no rules or Highway Code; anything goes, literally.
At one point, my excitable cyclo driver is pointing the wrong way down the street, going head-on into incoming traffic. When he sees I’m looking scared, he laughs and shouts, ‘Good morning Vietnam, good morning Vietnam’ The weird thing is that out of the 4 million residents of Hanoi, almost all of them have scooters, and they all seem to be on the road at once, it is mayhem. Having said that, we did not see one accident or a close shave, just a lot of bibbing on their horns.
As we film, we come across many people selling various foods. I try boiled and fried eels from a small vendor selling a sort of chilli rice vermicelli. It’s delicious. I also try an afternoon snack of crispy rice sheets, smothered with a thick custard-like mix of pureed mung beans and sesame and lightly sugared it to is delicious.
We film at Hanoi’s most popular roasted meat shop. It’s tiny, and the golden roasted baby suckling pig draws me, dark roasted pigeons hanging up outside, and the delicious aroma wafting down the busy street. The two old ladies running the shop show a deft hand chopping the huge chunks of meat with large cleavers for her customers. Across the road, a ‘copycat stall’ has set up a business. A small vendor trying to jump on the bandwagon and the success of the meat shop. This is quite common here, Tuong, our fixer, explains.
We film lots of streets and more scooters, finally ending up at Cha Ca La Long to film a fish dish that gives this street and the restaurant its name. Well, I say a restaurant, the name suggests it sells a variety of foods. In fact, it sells one dish and has done since 1871. The fish is so famous they even name the street after it.
It’s a fried Cha Ca local fish that comes to your table lightly frying set on its own heat lamp. It served with a bowl of finely shredded dill, not like the European variety more like fennel (the French brought dill to Vietnam) Another small bowl of shredded spring onion, a further one with fresh Vietnamese holy basil and coriander, peanuts (served with most meals here) fresh hot chilli, fish sauce and rice noodles. Tuong shows me what to do. You sauté the dill in with the fish using chopsticks. Then, whilst that is wilting slightly, you place the hot noodles into a separate bowl. That gets topped with fish sauce, peanuts, basil and coriander and a little chilli. Then top with the cooked fish and the softened dill mix well and eat. It’s so simple but so tasty. After we finish filming, all the crew have a taste, and it’s a resounding success. As we step outside, it’s dark, and there is no let-up in the traffic. We carefully make our way to the minibus and head back to the hotel to drop off all the kit and a welcome beer.
Tuong says he wants to take us to a good local restaurant for dinner, we all agree, although I’m feeling pretty full.
We head to the Hanoi Garden, I would never find it again on my own, but it’s in the old quarter, where all the streets look vaguely similar. However, the entrance is quite deceiving; it looks like a long passage, with rows and rows of scooters. In the end, there is a large open eating area, and it is packed; we venture inside to an air-conditioned room. Although it’s November here, it’s still in the mid-twenties and very warm. I ask Tuong why Vietnamese people do not wear shorts; he explains it’s autumn and cold now!!!! I laugh and tell him this would be a heatwave in the UK.
We try Saigon beer, a throwback from the Americans being here. It’s hoppy and light—a welcome drink after a very long travel/filming day.
Tuong asks us what we all would like and then orders for us. We start with a simple salad of shredded banana flowers with bean sprouts and shrimp. It’s fresh and straight to the point with a kick of chilli and fish sauce. It’s perfectly balanced in every way, and I love it. Next a vegetarian spring rolls, plus a pork version with dipping sauce. They are light and packed full of flavour. Quickly followed by sautéed pork, with pineapple and peppers. The pork is so soft and tasty I thought it was chicken. It’s probably some of the nicest I have ever eaten. Tuong explains that pineapple breaks down the meat structure and makes it softer; he is bang on. Next, the roast duck comes sliced and is beautifully cooked. Again, the texture and flavour are amazing. The meat has a lovely sweet edge.
Large chunks of fried fish (can’t remember the name) topped with green mango and fish sauce is very good also, as is the grilled pork, older animal this time, topped with a thickened coconut milk and as dipping sauce of salt, pepper and sharp lemon juice. The only other dish was called ‘Morning Glory’, a side of water spinach wok-fried with garlic. It reminds me of a cross between long leafy spinach and purple sprouting broccoli. It was one of the dishes I had eaten a version of in London before leaving whilst I did my research. Tuong explains it was the basic food for prisoners of war here in Vietnam; they called it grass. I’m sure it wasn’t like this version. We drink a little more beer and head back to the hotel. I fall asleep in the minibus. We have to be up early tomorrow (5.30) to film the Tai Chi in the park. At the hotel, the lads do emails, Tuong goes home, and I go to bed, feeling pleasantly full; what a great first day.
I sleep okay, but wake up early and do some writing. It’s quite nice at that time in the morning. I fall back to sleep and wake up when the buzzer goes off.
We all meet and look surprisingly good and head off to film the locals doing Tai Chi. I’m not really prepared for what I see. In one of the squares and the surrounding area close to the lake, there must be a thousand people dancing and working out to the hastily set up PA systems blaring out music. The youngest is about 40 ish. The oldest must be well into their 90’s. Everywhere you look or drive there is some sort of exercise going on kids playing football, badminton; a sort of football badminton, weight training, people massaging, themselves and each other and it’s only 6.30 in the morning.
All this exercise continues for a good couple of hours, and then people gradually drift home or off to work.
A lot of them take breakfast at a pop-up Pho area. Most of them cannot be described as restaurants it can be a place on the pavement or door shelter. Pho, pronounced ‘fur’ (as we were quickly corrected because pronounced ‘fo’ means prostitute), is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish. It’s basically a flavourful beef or chicken stock, with silky rice noodles, spring onion, some add a little ginger. Then when ready to serve, you add a little very thinly sliced beef or chicken that cooks in the hot stock. Then you can add some sliced fresh red chilli, squeeze of lime.
I sit at a shallow table on a shallow seat, right next to a French pastry shop and tuck into my Pho. It’s delicious, packed full of flavour and all for about a pound. This is what I call a healthy breakfast. Can you imagine sitting on a street corner in your local town on a cold day eating this wonderful offering?
We say our goodbyes and head off on the bus to the snake village for lunch. Yep, snake for lunch. I was a bit apprehensive about this if I’m candid. The village is about 40 minutes out of Hanoi in a village called Long Bien.
We arrive in the small village; it is quiet, and we are big news. We are ushered into a cavern of a restaurant and brought drinks. A nice table is set out for me to film on under a large tree with creepers growing all over it. Tuong explains to the restaurant what we want to film, and we settle down. We are shown the snakes, mostly Cobras, with some White Jungle snakes.
I have to add here all the snakes are bred in captivity by the restaurant and are kept and treated extremely well, as are the other items such as duck, pigeons, a sort of porcupine and huge lizards.
I sit down at the table and get ready, not expecting what was to happen next. Instead, there is a slight commotion behind me, and as I look around, one of the waiting staff produce a large snake from a bag for me to look at and see if I’m happy.
It’s a Cobra and a mighty fine one at that. I’m stunned for a few seconds and gesture to the man I’m happy, really happy…..in a please can you take it away from me sharpish manner. He nods at the snake is placed back into the large cotton bag, and off he went. This gives me time to reflect on what has just happened. Let’s recap. I have just been a few inches from one of the world’s deadliest snakes, and in a few minutes, I will be eating it.
Snake here is an important protein in everyday Vietnamese life and has been for centuries. It is healthy, available and very good for you, apart from the venom, of course. Every part of the snake is used, even the skin and bones.
We start the seven-course meal with a thickened snake and mushroom soup. It is good and full of flavour very similar to the chicken and sweetcorn soup you get in a good Chinese restaurant. I like it. Next, we have snake meat chopped finely and mixed with some herb and wrapped Betel leaves and fried, like small rolls, they too are delicious.
Swiftly followed by a sort of snake stir fry with a Vietnamese fungus and vegetables.
Bar-b-q morsels next with a spicy, salty coating, then a small bowl of poached meat with small beans and vinegar in a good stock.
The skin is scaled and deep-fried and served with a sharp lime, salt, and fresh chilli dipping sauce.
Finally, sticky corn rice, a sort of fine rice porridge with peanuts, the deep-fried snake bones sprinkled on crispy rice crackers and rice paper filled rolls with a chopped snake, Lizard tail (a green vegetable with a fishy flavour), ginger and soy. Wow-what a meal we were stuffed, but every part of the reptile used, including the beating heart, blood and bile. The latter is mixed with rice wine to make it more palatable.
We clamber back into the bus, full of snake and looking back and discussing what a day we have had so far. But not for long as we had a date at another restaurant later in the afternoon for some even more exotic foods.
Highway 4 owner Dan has been working in Vietnam for 14 years. He started life living in rural Bucks before training as an English teacher. From there lived in Russia and Sri Lanka, then finally settling down here. He’s an engaging character, thick-set, shaved head and with earrings in both ears. He looks rather scary, but with a big smile.
We were here to eat insects, yes insects. The restaurant is famous for its insect/reptilian offerings, and they come in many forms, shapes and flavours.
We start by filming in a very clean kitchen as Dan chats through what we have on offer and what we are about to eat.
Locusts, crickets, silkworm larvae, sandworms and scorpions are all on the menu. Dan tells me to pick up a scorpion that’s trying to make a run for it. I ask if it’s poisonous. First, he smiles and does not answer. I ask again, again he smiles and says, ‘No, it’s not’ I pick and place it back in the bowl. He then chats to his head chef in fluent and very impressive. He then says quietly, ‘Oh, by the way, they are poisonous’ I do go cold for a second or two. Tuong chips in ‘They won’t kill you too much’ I nervously laugh, and he explains it could make you ill, but we have medicine to cure it. Well, that’s reassuring then, I think. JD director has a fit and looks at me, I smile, and we carry on.
I watch his executive chef and his staff chop, prepare and cook all the insects with calm, precise skill; it’s awe-inspiring.
We retire back to the restaurant where I finish my piece to camera, tasting the dishes all washed down with Dan’s local apple liquor. The scorpions are quite tough to crack through and have a peculiar flavour. The flesh from the claws is soft and reminds me of a soft lobster consistency.
The locusts are crisp and delicious, fried quickly with a little added salted pork fat. Salted and spiced quite highly, they are outstanding. The crickets are the same in taste and crunch but are slightly more meaty, finished with chunks of lime zest.
The silkworm larvae are coated in what looks like cornflour and quickly fried, then added to many other ingredients. These are like eating small capsules of thick chicken soup that explode in your mouth when eaten and are surprisingly good. The sandworms make a tasty omelette/tortilla and are very meaty, something a former SAS man had told me some years ago.
Overall I really enjoyed the insect experience and would do it again. However, even after my short time here, I’m beginning to realise that the Vietnamese waste absolutely nothing when it comes to preparing and cooking food. As Tuong says to me, “Freshness is that important to them, they will go to the market twice a day to ensure the food is in peak condition”.
We head back to the hotel, passing by a bar set high above a busy intersection to film the organised mayhem below Ho Chi Minh.
We rise early to get to the airport on time for our hour flight to Da Nang. The coach picks us up and heads out of Hanoi. It is 6 in the morning, and the city is just awake. The misty, cool morning is a welcome change from the warm afternoons we have had. As we make our way out, street food vendors are setting up for the morning Pho rush. Small fires are being wafted with fans, and ladies with bikes ladened with fruits wait by the roadside. More women with long flat poles across one shoulder with 2 reed baskets at each end struggle down the pavements and roads packed with fresh herbs and vegetables.
I see congee sellers, a sort of thick rice porridge and also ladies with steaming baskets of sweetcorn peeled for you like a breakfast snack. As we progress out, we pass the flower market, again many people strapping boxes and bags of flowers to bikes and scooters. It’s an impressive sight.
We check-in, say goodbye to Tuong and wait for our flight. I wander around the small airport and sip sweet tea. There is a television in one corner, and I see a football match is in progress. As I get closer, I see it’s Cardiff v Leeds and wonder to myself if the 2 or 3 guys watching have ever been to Leeds or Cardiff.
The flight is quick, and we land in the rain. We are met at the airport by a wonderful chap called Phoc, pronounced ‘fok’. He is very funny, “Mr Phil Vickery this” and “Mr Phil Vickery that”, he even thinks Mr Phil Vickery can stop the rain tomorrow.
As we head out to The Nam Hai, he chats about the American’s being here in the war years. He explains that a large rocky outcrop we pass called marble mountain was a hideout for the Viet Cong. He was very proud of the fact that even when it was bombed, they still survived living in the tunnels.
The Nam Hai is a resort built on a long stretch of coastline the Americans called China beach. It was where the GI’s came for R&R. Now it’s all been brought up for developing luxury hotels and golf clubs, many yet to be built.
The hotel is impressive and quietly understated. The drive is long and lined with deep green plants. Phoc explains the health club as we pass by and we pull up under a huge canopy. The greeting is superb, with many staff buzzing around offering green tea and semi-dried shards of ginger and mango.
After check-in, I’m taken to my room, sorry bungalow in a covered stretch golf buggy. My room is one of many others that sleeps more people and has its own pools and gyms. It’s spacious, very clean and has all the mod cons. The bathroom area is to the rear of the long room and has good sized indoor and outdoor showers.
The sunken bath is next to the bed and desk in the main room; I like it. The bed linen is crisp and very comfortable, as are the bathrobes, probably the best I’ve worn anywhere. A member of staff knocks and offers to explain the workings of the room to me. I ask do you have an adaptor for a UK plug. She says ‘Yes, of course’ with a beaming smile and produces one from a drawer. The room is packed with everything one needs, an iPod, good telly, great lighting, a comfy bed, an outside seating area and a view of the crashing waves right from the bed.
I shower and then head off for lunch with JD, the crew and Caroline, the Hotel PR for the UK, at the beach bar. The restaurant and kitchens are open-plan with very high ceilings and a lovely feel. It’s split into two areas, hot cooking and preparation and cold preparation and pizza making.
Two large swimming pools run along two sides of the restaurant. From where I’m sitting, I can look right out to sea.
The menu is as impressive as the hotel, but we let Albert head PR for the hotel order for us. He orders for me a local beef salad and a Pork Baguette called a Banh Mi, very popular in Vietnam, a throwback to the French rule here for some 92 years. More about this later.
Both are good, the salad fragrant, light with local herbs (from their own organic garden) and a sweet and sour dressing very popular here in Vietnam, its finished with peanuts and is very nice. I love it. The baguette is a softer version of the European offering, wider and larger. It’s packed with thinly sliced barbecued belly pork marinated in a spicy sauce, spring onions and more herbs. Its served with a bean sprout and finely shredded carrot salad. This again has a pungent fish sauce, lime peanut dressing and is fresh as a daisy.
After lunch, we head off to meet a man called Jack Sparrow. Yes, I know what you are thinking. He’s a fisherman, and so is his dad Captain Cook, yes, yes I know. Apparently, he lives in a small fishing village called Phouc Hai, some 20-minute drive away. We drive inland from the coast and along a long straight road splitting 2 large rice paddies in half. We stop for Matt to get shots of locals fishing for small fish in the water-filled paddies, plus a few water buffalo, the best tractor here in Vietnam. A local guy riding a scooter stops and asks us what we are doing. We tell him, and then JD asks if he can take me for a spin on the back so we can get a few passing shots. He agrees, and I borrow his sister’s helmet. You wouldn’t get that in London!!!!!
We meet the pair of them and discuss what the plan is for the following day. They are charming, funny and speak great English. We plan to sail into the jungle where the Viet Cong hid whilst occasionally attacking the American troops who had a set up a small camp, about a hundred men close by. I would also try my hand at net fishing. By the time we leave it’s now raining very hard, we wonder if the filming will go ahead tomorrow. The forecast is not looking promising; still, it can change pretty quickly. We eat in the hotel again that night simple food. I had green mango salad and pork on pandan leaves, both delicious. Off to bed.
The next day after a fab breakfast, we film with Conrado, the resort Executive Head Chef in the beach kitchen. First, he makes Cau Lau, a local delicacy of pork (Char Siew) in a deep sauce made with ginger, lemongrass and spices. He then blanches bean sprouts (not wok fried), basil, mint and noodles made and coloured by the root ash from a certain tree, then cooked refreshed and added to a bowl, topped with fried rice squares its a local delicacy to the Quang Nam province. It’s really delicious and a perfect breakfast dish.
We then film Conrado in the hotel’s organic herb garden. It’s bloody hot; he’s relaxed but sweating. We watch 4 women work in the sweltering heat. Even after all the rain, they are still watering as the soil is more sand than soil and drains really quickly. They grow many things, including water, spinach and sweet potato flowers, plus papaya.
All of which go to the restaurants in the resort. Thank goodness the sun is out as we confirm to Jack, we can film in the early afternoon.
By the time we get there, Jacks is slightly cooler but still sunny and humid. We park outside the village and decide to film the local kids eating lunch. It’s all good fun for them. Even the mums get involved and have a laugh. I feel a bit like the pied piper.
We eat a light lunch of spring rolls and dipping sauce and beer made by Jack’s mum Rose in the family restaurant called The End Of The World, not sure why.
After lunch, we climb into 2 longboats and head off to the jungle about ¼ of a mile away.
Jack explains that in the height of the war with America, the Viet Cong would hide here in this thick, lush jungle and wait for the Americans. They would eat fish and crabs and were superb swimmers. The Americans found it very difficult to hunt them down.
We then film with Jack and Bai 7. Bai is a local fisherman, 7 is a reference to his teeth; he only has 7. He teaches me to cast his net, all good fun for the camera. I’m sure he was taking the mickey. I then cook a dish for them, steamed grey mullet with herbs and dipping sauce. The sauce is a base of what I had seen at Conrado’s restaurant, just a little sweeter. The fish is beautifully fresh, and I think they were happy!!
As we chug back, I film a piece to camera as the sun is setting, we have been so lucky with the weather, and that’s the day over.
After a quick kip and a shower, outside this time, it’s time for dinner. Dinner in the hotel this evening was on Conrado. He was going to cook us classic Vietnamese fare. I was excited, and he did not disappoint. We had 4 brilliant courses to start with spring rolls. These had various fillings, from prawn to pork to a veggie option. They were light, crisp and packed full of flavour.
Next, a local fish soup with ginger, again good and packed full of flavour and light. Quickly followed by 6 clay pots, an authentic cooking vessel filled with an array of gorgeous flavours, textures and proteins. The sauces are finished with tamarind, caramel and molasses flavour profiles. The sauces have a deep, powerful flavour.
The pots included chicken, pork, squid, duck, fish and frogs legs, all perfectly cooked. The main courses were accompanied by rice noodles and steamed rice. All washed down with a fruity Sauvignon Blanc.
Feeling stuffed, I just managed to force down a rather pleasant poached mung bean jelly with ginger, very light and good. This was the best meal so far, probably of the whole trip, balanced, assured cooking with a brilliant balance of complex flavours and textures; wow.
I slept really well and woke up for Breakfast. This time I had Pho Bo, which is braised beef with noodles, Holy Basil, and bean sprout in a fragrant broth.
JD tells me he wants to film in my room as a sort of Apocalypse Now moment. The bit where Martin Sheen wakes up looking at the room fan, thinking it’s the rotor blades from a Huey helicopter. I could not remember it to tell you the truth, but a quick look on Youtube soon sorts it out. It’s fun.
We then film on China beach and the swimming pool at the Nam Hai, it’s so beautiful. I get chatting to two Aussies; they love Jamie and Nigella, oh well!!
We set off to Hoi An to get GV’s. They have a simple lunch, crabs, White Rose dumplings, spring rolls and beer, and then film flooded bridges.
Hoi An is a real tourist trap, full of shops selling fake shirts and hats. It’s so different from Han Noi. We haggle for tea shirts, all good fun. We film weddings on the street (this is the time of year) and eat wonderful silken tofu drenched in fresh ginger syrup from an old lady on the side of the street, its again totally delicious, sadly I did not get a photo. The street markets are packed, selling anything from a simmered duck egg foetus to rip off hats and handbags. By now, it’s teeming down again. JD makes me film in the pouring rain…twice. I say he will never use it, he shouts, I say my piece, it all goes quiet. We finally pack in filming and, yes, have a beer.
Tuc, our guide, takes us back to the hotel and says he will drop us back for dinner later. I get back to the room and pack my bag as we have an early start the next day. I have a quick sleep, then back to Hoi An for dinner at the Green Mango, a new restaurant that had just opened. It was a bit weird, really, sort of poncy Vietnamese food, done the Heston way. We could have been in London. The food looked incredible but had no substance. We go back to the hotel a bit tired.
The next day we say our goodbyes to the hotel staff and depart, yep, in the rain. The hotel is fantastic; I will be back. It’s everything you could wish for.
Phoc drops us off, I feel sad to be leaving him, lovely guy, and no doubt I will see him again in the future. We check-in and depart for the next leg of the trip.
Arrive Saigon Ho Chi Minh, what a difference, modern, clean, very western, so different from Hanoi. We meet our next fixer Nghia and our driver; we pack the coach and set off on a 4-hour drive to Can Tho, a small town with 1.4 million people. The roads are okay for 2 hours, and then they turn into pot-holed no go areas. We pass many rice paddies and a constant stream of mopeds and lorries, all tooting their horns. I fall asleep but violently woken up at times with the potholes.
After a couple of hours, we stop at a small Vietnamese motorway service station. I suppose it’s the equivalent of Watford Gap. The car park is full of coaches, buses and cars. All the people are funnelling into a large open-sided building. We approach and look inside. It’s a huge circular eating area, probably seating 300 people. Hghia asks if we are hungry, we all nod a bit wearily. He orders we have all sorts from spring rolls to hot salty fish rice dishes and a spectacular whole deep-fried fish that the waiter breaks apart and wraps into spring rolls for you.
I see a small cooking area to one side and wander off to have a look. It’s packed full of bar-b-q pork, cooked fish, steaming rice and what looks like 2 large balloons. I watch as the chef places a large lump of rice paste mixed with a little soy oil into a huge cauldron of bubbling fat.
He massages it and flattens it, and works it as it bubbles away in the oil. Gradually the rice expands and starts to puff up. He keeps turning, coating in hot oil, and the ball gets bigger and bigger until it’s the size of my head. Then, finally, he lifts out and drains well.
It’s eaten as a sort of bread course. I make my way back to the table to tell the crew that we have to film it. When we have finished, I say to camera, ‘and this is roadside food’. Feeling full, we pile back onto the couch and fall in and out of sleep for the next 2 hours of our journey.
We arrive at our hotel, The Victoria, it’s large open planned and has the air of a colonial building, it’s very nice. The rooms are spacious and clean, and well-appointed. My room looks out over the swimming pool and has a lovely look to it in the late afternoon sunset. The staff are immaculate, and the service is some of the best I have ever encountered. There is a common theme emerging here. It even has a resident buffalo! We crash into our rooms and quickly come down for an ice-cold beer and have a dinner of crab and mango rice. I retire early, and the lads go out for a beer.
The next day is an early start, 5:30. We pile into the coach, and Nghia produces a welcome breakfast box of sandwiches, cakes, yoghurt and fruit. We settle back into another 1½ hour coach ride to the floating vegetable market of the Cai Be. We set off in two thin boats and sail about 30 minutes into the bay. The inlet is packed full of boats of all shapes and sizes, and some lived on, some just selling goods. You can tell the ones selling products as they have a tall pole with whatever they are selling tied to the top.
We film squashes and tarot being unloaded and the general busy day of the area, even large blocks of ice being packed onto boats. I love this area and could spend more time here with the locals: next stop, the salt purification shed and rice paper making. We see how the rice papers are steamed and dried.
Plus, popcorn rice bars are being produced. First, a small amount of black sand is heated in a large pan over a fire made from burning rice husks. The heating of the sand ensures an even cook to the rice. Next, rice is added and quickly stirred. Finally, the rice puffs up like popcorn, and the sand is sieved out and reused.
The popcorn rice is then cooked with palm sugar to form a puffed rice bar, similar to the breakfast ones you see in the supermarkets here, only much better.
We try and have a cold drink, finally buying rice paper for my cooking sequence later. As we leave, we step over two sleeping dogs; they look so happy. I say to Hghia, what lovely pets they are. He replies, ‘yes, until Christmas, you won’t see many after Christmas’ apparently, they are like turkey to us. I take a quick photo and get back onto the boat. We steam for 1 hour right into the island inlets for lunch.
We finally arrive at our restaurant after many pieces to camera on the boat. I’m a bit peckish now, and the owners greet us. It’s a warm, close day today. We are given hand towels and wash our hands. We are ushered around the back of the restaurant just in time to see our lunch being netted and dispatched. Two large fish are then cleaned and popped straight into boiling oil. It goes against all the rules of frying. I fully expected to see the whole place go up in flames.
I wander outside and sit with the rest of the crew. We are all a bit jaded today; it does start to catch up with you after a few days.
Lunch is delicious, starting with spring rolls, and our fish 20 minutes ago swimming about is now proudly sitting pretty on a wooden stand, crispy scales giving the fish a sparkling effect. The lady deftly removes chunks of delicate flesh and place them on a spring roll wrapper. We then help ourselves to impeccably fresh herbs and salads to add to our fish and a little cucumber and carrot. Rolled up and then dipped in fish sauce. It’s very nice. We quickly film a member of staff catching the fish, then have rice, a sort of pork broth and some vegetables. I’m stuffed now. We film my piece to camera, a version of what we had had for lunch. I cook on a traditional stone stove. It’s terrific and really holds the heat well. We taste, pretty good I reckon, for a beginner.
After saying our goodbyes and thanks, we hop onto the boat and sail back to the mainland. I fall asleep in a hammock on the boat, full to the brim; it’s bliss.
The next day we then drive to Ho Chi Minh city and check into our smart hotel. It’s a bit like being in London, really. However, I was expecting it to be more like Han Noi.
That night we meet up with the Travel Indochina boys and have a lovely dinner at the Old Opium Refinery, now a smart restaurant.
We start with spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce and fresh chilli, well balanced and tasty. Next, we had Pomelo, squid and crab salad, I wasn’t too sure at the start, but it was well balanced, sharp and packed full of white crab meat. Quickly followed by another salad, this time green mango finely shredded with peanuts and chilli. Mains were again simple and straight to the point, grilled prawns, half de-shelled, were grilled to perfection, eating the heads also was a nice touch. Fried fish with beetroot and chicken with a crunchy lemongrass topping. Accompanied by the obligatory soya bean sprouts with green shallots, rice and noodles. This was very good food and served by smiling and well-informed staff. Off to bed as I was really looking forward to the next day.
We set off to the Cu Chi tunnels about 1 ½ hours out of Ho Chi Minh the next day. This area was famous during the Vietnam war for the resistance put up by the local people to the American invasion. The Americans saw the area as perfect for all its operations and were close to Saigon as it was known at the time. I remember watching the 6 o’clock news in the early seventies as a kid and seeing big white arrows heading towards Saigon, similar to the Dad’s army opening credits you see today. For 15 years, the locals lived in many tunnels underneath the forest, outfoxing the Americans. Eating, cooking, hospitals, all hidden underneath the ground. They even tunnelled underneath the American bases to listen in, all fascinating stuff.
We see the grizzly man traps invented by the Viet Cong to maim soldiers, and I try to get into a tunnel entrance; it was a tight fit. We explore a large tunnel made bigger for tourists even that it was a bit claustrophobic; imagine this for 250km. At the end of the tour, there is a firing range so that you can shoot a myriad of guns. I shot M16 carbine, M 30 and AK 47. All good fun, if not a little scary.
We head back to Ho Chi Minh past rubber plantations, and I quietly reflect on what must have gone on here for the best part of 20 years. I ask Hghia what he thought of the war with the American’s. His reply stops me in my tracks, ‘Well, we have a saying here, work hard and enjoy life. We are very forgiving people’ How true he is. I have never been anywhere where the people are so friendly, hospitable and polite. You would think they would be outraged people, but nothing seems to bother them.
We film the making and eating of another staple dish of Vietnam, Bahn Mi, a leftover from the French occupation. The cafe is right under Ho Chi Minh’s famous landmark, the lotus leaf tower, complete with a helicopter deck; it’s an amazing building. It’s a large, slightly fatter baguette stuffed with mild chilli sauce, pork and vegetables, and it’s truly delicious.
We film at the beautiful post office and then head to the war museum, where there are many pieces of captured American military equipment. Thanks to ‘Huey’, the iconic twin-rotor helicopter depicted in all the footage and later such films as Platoon.
The museum is a stark and shocking reminder of the cold effects of this horrible war. There are many harrowing pictures of the horrors of war. There is a room dedicated to the continuing health problems associated with Agent Orange, the nerve and defoliant sprayed on huge areas of Vietnam. The bell rings, and I leave feeling very low indeed.
We quietly head back to the hotel, pack our bags for the last time, and set off to the airport. We check-in and are allowed to get on the plane early to film a short piece to camera, and that was our trip over.
Vietnam truly moved me and is a place I will return to pretty quickly. The food, people and stunning countryside are breathtaking. I urge you to get here sharpish.
My personal thanks to the following people (sorry if I forgot anyone) who made this trip such a pleasure:
- Vietnam Airways
Book Online or Call 44-20-3286-3688
- All Phil’s travel arrangements in Hanoi, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the Mekong Delta were arranged by Travel Indochina, the UK’s leading specialist in escorted small group tours and tailor-made holidays to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From transfers to market visits to a stay at the Victoria Can Tho Resort, follow Phil’s footsteps and witness Vietnam’s natural beauty, friendly locals and unforgettable cuisine.
- To experience a similar north to south itinerary through Vietnam focusing on food, take a look at Travel Indochina’s 11 days Vietnam Culinary Discovery and Vietnam Insight tours, or speak with one of their Asia experts to arrange a tailor-made itinerary to match your exact requirements.
- Let Travel Indochina share real Asia with you.
Travel Indochina – www.travelindochina.co.uk
- Mason Rose – masonrose.com
- Tuong & Nghia, from Travel Indochina
- The Nahn Hi Hotel – www.thenamhai.com
- Restaurants and Bars, Hanoi, Vietnam: Highway4 traditional – www.highway4.com