7 Things I discovered (and loved) while in Vietnam
08 Mar 2019 - Anneka Manning
Vietnam is a colourful and chaotic, yet gentle and incredibly hospitable country. When I visited in February 2019 this is just seven of the things (some foodie, some not-so-foodie) that I discovered and LOVED!
- Reaching Out Teahouse – Every once in a while, you discover a gem within a gem. Hoi An is a very special, but what was truly memorable for me when visiting this ancient town was the Reaching Out Tea House. This beautiful cafe offers a unique and authentic Vietnamese hospitality “centred around the anticipation of tea in silence” (great local coffee and cool drinks are also available). The tea house is managed by the hearing and speech impaired and communication is done through sign language and by using the word blocks and order forms. This tranquil space and the concept of taking tea ‘in the beauty of silence’ really moved me. There is also a craft shop close by with gorgeous handicrafts and a workshop attached.
- Train Street – Who would have thought watching a train go by could be so much fun?! Regular trains connecting the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south hurtle down this street between residential houses in Hanoi’s Old Quarter at least twice a day (usually around 3pm and 7pm) on weekdays and more often on weekends. The fit is tight, the atmosphere fun and, between trains, there is plenty of time for Instagram-worthy moments on the tracks. We stopped at the Railway Café and ate a late-lunch Pho while we waited… and then, in 1-minute flat, it was all over!
- Walking Food Tours– If you ever come to Vietnam you must, must, must do a walking food tour–preferably at the beginning of your trip. We did one in Hanoi with Ha Food Tours. Kelly, a witty, fun and knowledgeable 20-something, was our guide for this 3-hour exploration of Hanoi street food. We were taken to seven different outlets each specialising in dishes that this food-centric city has become known for. So what was on the menu? Nom Bo Kho (papaya and dried beef salad); Banh Cuon Nong (steamed rice pancakes filled with mushroom and pork and made from super thin, super fresh rice paper); Banh Mi (you may know these as Ha Hong rolls but they don’t come close - these ones were filled with chicken liver pâté, slow-cooked pork, green papaya, cucumber and herbs and then toasted - completely sublime!); Bun cha (grilled pork and meatballs with rice noodles and herb salad); Banh Xeo:(Vietnamese fried pancake filled with prawn and bean spouts and wrapped with herbs DIY-style in (again, super thin) rice paper); Cha ca (pan-fried catfish with dilled greens, rice noodles and peanuts); and for dessert Ca Phe Trung (Egg coffee - a simple yet sublime combination of kick-ass coffee topped with a sabayon-like mixture of egg yolks, sugar and vanilla.) We came away contented, energised and in love with the food of Vietnam! But best of all it gave us the insight and confidence to choose and explore Vietnamese food with gusto for the remainder of our trip.
- Homestays in Vietnam – homestays in Vietnam are kind of like ‘bed and breakfast’ accommodation, but they also do dinner, and picnic lunch, and snacks, and your washing (if you are extra lucky!)…. We ate a lot of amazing food while in Vietnam but our homestay dinners definitely stood out. One meal we enjoyed in the small village of Ta Van in the north of Vietnam near Sapa. After a day of hiking along an ‘off the beaten track’ route through terraced rice paddies, over mountain streams and through tiny villages we were treated to a meal that Chaly, our host for the night, had prepared using ingredients that she and her family had either grown, raised and/or cured, including rice from last year’s harvest, homemade pork sausage and greens from their kitchen garden spiced with ginger. We ate with the family in their modest kitchen perched on small stools, exchanging many smiles in lieu of a common spoken language... and of course we drank shots of homemade rice wine! The food was amazing but the complete experience really did take it to another level.
- Fresh ginger tea – I’ve had fresh ginger tea before but not the way they make it in the rural north of Vietnam… I discovered the secret was the addition of powdered ginger! Powdered and fresh ginger are combined with a generous (and I mean generous!) dose of honey or sugar in this simple hot drink. This kind of ginger tea has now become part of my after-dinner routine and I love the daily reminder of so many of the uncomplicated but amazing things that Vietnam has to offer. By the way, Vietnamese local coffee is amazing too – rich, strong and very, very sweet.
- Vy’s Market Cooking Class – I love any excuse to be the student... and while in Hoi An we spent a fabulous morning doing a ‘Countryside Bicycle Tour and Cooking Class’ with Vy’s Market Restaurant. We visited one of the local Hoi An markets, cycled through rice paddys and up country lanes, planted herbs at the largest market garden in Vietnam (and attempted to water them the traditional way!!), drank traditional sweetened iced coffee at a road-side café, risked our lives alongside buses, trucks and motorbikes on the road back to the cooking school and then spent a couple hours learning how to cook some of Hoi An’s street food specialties, including Banh Xeo and White Rose (prawn and pork dumplings). It was the perfect way to get to know Hoi An, its countryside and its food.
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – a Unesco World Heritage Site and situated in the skinniest part of central Vietnam, this was the most uninhabited and well-preserved area we visited during our time in Vietnam. We stayed in the quiet village of Phong Nha and a highlight was a day trekking through Ma Da Valley, swimming and exploring caves in the area with Jungle Boss. Deep in the jungle, other than those in our small group, we didn’t spot another soul all day–NOT one! It’s a stunning part of the world that provides relief from the busy, busy, busy pace of Vietnam cities.