Oriental spice

John Curnow | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 5
With history dating back many centuries, Hoi An is a melting pot of cultures and styles.
The mouth-watering flavours of Vietnamese cuisine are as diverse as the country itself …

When you land in Vietnam, one of the first things you hear from travellers on their way back out concerns the locals’ incredibly broad taste in food. “The only things they don’t eat that fly are planes and the only things with four legs they won’t touch are tables,” one bloke told me.

In essence that’s pretty true, and perhaps not surprising – with nearly 90,000,000 people living in just 330,000km² (about the area of Victoria and Tasmania combined), there are plenty of mouths to feed. However, what my fellow traveller’s comment doesn’t reveal is the way the food changes from one of the country’s many regions to the next, and also how dependent the Vietnamese people are on their extensive shoreline, just like we are here in Australia.

Vietnam’s two biggest cities are remarkably diverse. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is found at around the same latitude as Cairns (albeit in the northern hemisphere), while to the north Hanoi’s latitude is more akin to that of Mackay (ditto). The two best times to go to cover Vietnam’s differing weather patterns are in April/May or October/November.

Because so much of the country is poor, fridges are sparse – and so the freshness of the food is paramount. Outside of the cities most local produce is just that – produce grown or reared on local farms – and without modern farming practices like that of feeding cattle or poultry hormone pellets, staples like chicken taste exactly as they should.

Dinner throughout the country can be yours for around $10 if you so choose, while at the other end of the scale a truly grand feast for two will set you back just $90. It is possible to spend more, but there’s little point. And if you’re prepared to experiment a little, avoid salads, and keep a supply of Imodium (anti-diarrhea) tablets handy, you’ll have a great time savouring some wonderful tastes.

CHAOS THEORY

There’s another wonderful aspect to Vietnam, but whether you too will find it wonderful depends entirely on your outlook. Chaos reigns supreme throughout the land, but if you’re not a relaxed type, you’ll find it infuriating. However, if you can simply ‘go with the flow’, you’ll already know it’s far easier to ‘pull’ rather ‘push back’ – and you’ll subsequently be rewarded with no end of warm smiles and fond memories. Believe me, the airport, traffic and even the electric wiring protocols in Vietnam will have you in stitches!

The traffic is insane across all of south-east Asia and Vietnam is no different. The humble scooter is the favoured transport and I heard reports of there being well over 10,000,000 of them across both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with some examples bearing fantastic model names like the Super Dream and the Smash Revo. Many times I saw a rider having a chat on his mobile phone while negotiating the mayhem, plus scoots that were loading up with everything you could imagine, including the kitchen sink. Crossing the road seems perilous, but isn’t – once you get your head around where it’s all coming from. Then traffic seems to part for pedestrians like the Red Sea for Moses. We saw an old lady get across a busy roundabout in Da Lat, all the while carrying her stick across her shoulders with her shopping bags hanging heavily from either end.

A point of difference with other bike-focused Asian countries is the Vietnamese fashion sense. Unlike many Australians, the Vietnamese don’t like to tan, and so they cover themselves up from the sun completely. They will happily ride around in high heels but with long socks to protect their legs, along with special gloves and masks. The fashion stakes don’t end there, however, with many scooters and riders’ helmets replete with all manner of ornaments and stickers.

Hoi An, on the central Vietnamese coast, is an amazing and historic place. A melting pot of cultures created by the traders who came here from all over the Orient and beyond, today its unique history and architecture is protected by a World Heritage listing. Eventually Hoi An’s river silted up and the trading action moved a little further north to Da Nang, but it’s still an active fishing town and is renowned for its tailors.

These tailors are truly masters of their craft and if you do decide to purchase a suit or dress, go to one of the two big facilities in town – at either you’ll be assured of garments whose quality will see them last long after your trip has ended. You may pay a little more, but it’s worth it – think of it as insurance against future disappointment. The experience of getting measured up can be a highlight in itself. The tailors are attentive, knowledgeable and funny. Once again, go with the flow and embrace the experience, don’t repel it – your new clothes will be ready for a fitting the next day, and delivery to your hotel the day after that.

Hoi An has been on the tourist route for many years now and so it has all manner of accommodation options, from hotels to even renting a whole house, and there are some very exclusive resorts located nearby. The Nam Hai is simply stunning and has around 500 staff to look after its maximum of 300 guests. Situated on 35ha, the resort grows its own herbs and vegetables, so the dishes are sparkling with great flavours. If lashing out is your thing, this is a great place to do it.

A ‘must see’ near Hoi An is the Red Bridge Restaurant & Cooking School. After a guided tour of the markets and a short trip on the river I found myself in a little oasis, with all the herbs in garden beds just waiting to be used by eager students. The instructor is a real hoot and he’ll make dishes on your camping stoves that will leave you speechless.

To the north Da Nang has at least six new massive complexes under construction, with the first of them due to come online from December 2011. This is what a lot of people will know as China Beach, and with a world-class golf course already in place, an airport and lots of sand, this will serve the tourist market well. It’ll be interesting to see what all this nearby development does to Hoi An, which to my eye already appears to be bursting at the seams.

FOODIE MAGNET

I also travelled south to Da Lat because of chef Luke Nguyen’s TV cooking show, having been inspired by the market and all the food on offer there. Situated high in the hills in south/central Vietnam, the food in the market is on the bottom floor and there are the eateries on the floor above, overlooking all the action. Do the tried and tested thing and head for where the locals are. I did and I had a ball – the Da Lat natives thought it was great that I wanted to sample their local dishes, and soon the whole table was laughing and taking pictures.

The term ‘rabbit warren’ simply doesn’t do the maze of stalls and street vendors here justice – or the cramped, stifling conditions they endure. ‘Ant colony’ is perhaps a little closer to the mark, with individual stalls as small as 1m², packed with wares and often a small TV to keep the shopkeeper amused.

Downstairs, the fresh food, meat and seafood areas are fascinating, but take heed: these are daily markets and they start early – visit them later in the day and you’ll probably catch a lot of the attendants taking a well-earned nap.

Da Lat is considered to be Vietnam’s Paris and it’s a favourite destination for weddings and honeymoons. Because it wasn’t of any particular strategic importance during the war, it’s remained intact, being spared from that period’s intensive bombing campaigns. Accordingly, the French colonial buildings adorning the top of the hill, overlooking the city, are still there – they now comprise a range of hotels.

Head out on the old railway through the countless market gardens and you come to Trai Mat, where the most ornate pagodas are to be found. This may not be everyone’s first choice, but you can’t help but admire the detailed work on display. Another trip worth doing is the cable car ride out of town, which takes you skimming through the pine trees in a glass capsule, on your way to still more pagodas and some picturesque dams.

Moving further south and back to the coast, I also stayed at the delightful Hideaway at Ninh Van Bay. If seclusion, pampering, a beach and warm weather are high on your priority list, don’t miss this one. With any number of options for recreation, plus a bar with sweeping views and a superb restaurant, there’s no need to go anywhere else.

For anyone who loves food and eating, plus all the enjoyment of life on, under or near the water, Vietnam has so much to offer – and the current buying power of the Aussie dollar is the icing on one delectable cake. Make it your next holiday destination – and take your appetite with you!


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