There are many good reasons to travel to Vietnam: food was high on my list. That, and the opportunity to once again travel with my 83-year-old father, an intrepid photographer. For him, food was incidental, but the serene beauty of the landscape and the chance to document the culture were well worth the 16-hour flight.
To eat, perchance to sleep
We arrived in Vietnam in late January, just as preparations for Tet, the New Year, were under way. The streets of Hanoi were teeming with red and gold lanterns, holiday treats and the potted peach and kumquat trees that are a Tet tradition.
In Hanoi's old quarter, pots of steaming soup along the roadside drew us near. Hungry shoppers sat at low plastic tables slurping noodles, while steps away, the savory aroma of pork cooking on a grill for Hanoi's specialty, bún cha (pork, noodles and greens with a little savory broth), sang its siren song. As we wove our way through the hodgepodge of motor scooters laden with live roosters, potted trees and sometimes entire families, my father's camera was a whirligig of activity.
Hanoi is best navigated with a guide. Ours led us through the maze of "36 Streets and 36 Wares," where each block is dedicated to a single item, such as traditional instruments, straw mats, silver or sewing materials. Just as our jet-lagged brains were at risk of stimulus overload, he brought us to the ancient Temple of Literature, a peaceful respite with a reflecting pool.
We continued our recovery the next day, when we boarded a boat for Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We cruised around the majestic limestone karsts that jut up toward the heavens from the sea, beguiled by the vividly colored floating fishing villages nestled against the giant rocks.
Learning from a pro in Hue
My real Vietnamese culinary education began in Hue, under the tutelage of cookbook author Nhu Huy, who guided us first through the outdoor market, then down a winding dirt road to a rice paper "factory" (a home-based family business). Three generations taught me how to form the paper-thin wrappers used to make candy and crackers: After many attempts I managed to make one or two without tearing them.
Back in town, we sampled the complex, sophisticated foods for which the city is known: va tron (or fig salad) a meaty, chewy and satisfying dish that bears no resemblance to the figs we know; banh beo, delicate rice flour cakes steamed in small bowls and topped with pork or shrimp; and banh nam, rice flour dumplings steamed in banana leaves. Hue, often recognized as the cultural and intellectual capital of Vietnam, is a food town. After sampling dishes at several restaurants, Huy served us her own exquisitely prepared sweets and her rice wine, which she ferments with star fruit and honey for 100 days. My father's camera had finally quieted; it was as sated as he was.
Mystical landscapes and fish sauce
On the car ride between Hue and Hoi An, we drove near the water's edge. There in the hushed gray mist, a low fishing boat glided across glasslike water toward the graceful swooping nets hung on impossibly thin piles, while, in the background, fog furled around gentle mountains.
The fisherman was collecting anchovies for fish sauce, the savory, salty liquid that is arguably the most important ingredient after rice in Vietnamese cooking.
We visited a fish sauce "factory" in Nam O village, where the best fish sauce in central Vietnam is made. Pham Sy Tan walked us through the process: He opened large terra cotta barrels, where fish and salt are combined and allowed to ferment for 10 to 12 months. The pungent paste is strained (the solids fed to animals) and bottled by hand. This is the first pressing with no additives. (Factory fish sauce may be made from the second pressing combined with MSG and other additives.)
Streets of Hoi An
The charming town of Hoi An, another UNESCO Heritage Site, has an abundance of wonderful restaurants, is renowned for its street food, and is home to large and fascinating food markets.
We toured one market with a young woman from STREETS, a program that provides impoverished kids with culinary and hospitality training, housing, social support and English language studies. She took us back to the kitchen, where (much to my father's pleasure) I learned to make banh xeo, yellow rice crepes filled with pork and shrimp. We dined at the STREETS restaurant, whose menu includes local specialties such as cao lau, chewy Hoi An noodles made with ash lye (not the caustic variety) and served in broth with pork, greens and croutons; and banh bao va, or "white rose dumplings," noodles folded to look like flowers, flavored with shrimp and fried garlic.
The Tan An market is most vibrant early in the morning, when locals shop. As the sun rose, I watched shoppers carry off five live roosters tied to their motor scooter handlebars; learned to make garnishes from a woman selling kitchen tools fashioned from old tin cans, and ate like the locals (with their help) at a street stand.
Hoi An is the place to feast on street food; vendors sell local specialties for $2-$5, which will leave plenty of money to take cooking classes offered by many restaurants.
Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta
We explored Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) from the back of Vespas, with experienced drivers zipping us through bustling streets. For lunch, we ate Vietnam's famous French-influenced banh mi sandwiches made with light, crisp baguettes, pate, pickled vegetables, sprigs of herbs and chilies. For dinner, we fell in love with pho, a fragrant beef and noodle soup that often is eaten for breakfast.
Just two hours and a world away from Saigon is the mellow Mekong Delta. We made our way down dirt roads, past fishing holes and fruit groves, waving back at friendly residents. We ate local specialties at a beautiful 100-year-old farmhouse, including fried carp; chicken with lotus stem; pork simmered in coconut with quail egg and dragon vegetable; and sour soup with okra, mint, pineapple and tamarind. We meandered through sweet-smelling pomelo, star fruit, rose apple and jackfruit groves until we came to a shady clearing beside a stream where a table laden with fruit awaited us. We tasted as instructed, from sour (dipped in seasoned salt) to sweet, as seduced by the beauty of the setting as we were by the fruit.
I came home with a deepened appreciation for the clean, finely balanced flavors of the cuisine; my father with photos that capture the beauty of the land, culture and people.
If you go
TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS Viet Orient Tours, a Vietnamese agency, arranged our itinerary, domestic flights, visas, accommodations and guides. They cater to a range of budgets and interests. Contact owner Viet Nguyen at Viet@vietorienttours.com.
HALONG BAY There are many boat tour companies, and options range from large day-trip boats to private luxury junks with one- to five-day trips. Book through your tour agency or directly, but not through hotels. We took a two-day trip with Indochina Sails: indochinasails.com/en/.
HUE FOOD TOUR Arrange tours with Nhu Huy through your tour agency or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
STREETS For more information on the program, streetsinternational.org.
HO CHI MINH CITY Vespa Tours is a fun way to get around the city. Our drivers made us feel surprisingly safe: vietnamvespaadventures.com.