The Many Flavors of Vietnam
by Cristina Mora, owner of Cristina Mora Literary & Film Agency
Vietnam is as amazing a country as you could possibly imagine. Lush vegetation, vast landscapes, friendly people, wonderful food. A place where time is easy. We began our trip in Hanoi and ended it in Saigon. In a way you could call Hanoi, the Asian Naples. Thousands, really, thousands of bikes — with two, three or even four people on board. There are no stop lights, so on the advice of our guide we made a chain, like “sticky rice” each time we wanted to cross. And it worked!
The morning after our arrival we were taken to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to pay our respects to Ho Chi Minh as hundreds of Vietnamese do every Sunday. We obligingly queued up. It was quite impressive to see how Vietnamese still have such great respect for “Uncle Ho”. We visited both of his houses, placed within the park, each very Spartan and simple, but with good views over a nearby pond. Another important site in Hanoi is the ”Hanoi Hilton” which, of course, is the famous prison used initially by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by the North Vietnamese. American prisoners of war dubbed the notorious prison the “Hanoi Hilton”. The facility was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse still remains as a museum.
HALONG BAY & SOUTH CHINA SEA
After two days in Hanoi, we left for Halong Bay. We traveled for nearly four hours by bus to arrive at the Bay then boarded our boat. Our rooms were luxurious and spacious. Although the weather that day was rainy, temperatures were still quite hot. So the most daring in our group (myself included) jumped in for a swim in the South China Sea — after all, you don’t get that kind of opportunity very often. It felt so good — just us, the boat and … silence.
Dinner that evening was another highlight. Different entrees with seafood, oysters, crab, cockles, clams (or pipis as my Australian fellows named them), fish and vegetables. All with our choice of beer or wine.
DA NANG & CHINA BEACH
From Halong Bay, our next stop was Da Nang, in Central Vietnam, situated on the coast of the South China Sea. Da Nang was an air base during the Vietnam War, used by the United States. China beach is one of the best known and beautiful beaches in the area, with white sand and clear blue water.
HOI AN COOKING CLASSES
From Da Nang we were driven to Hoi An, a beautiful little city with old buildings, local shops, a bustling market and again wonderful food. There, I had booked myself into a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School. I was met by a trainee from the school, who took me and a family of four, on a tour of the Hoi An market to learn about different fruits, herbs and spices, as well as fish. To get to the school, there’s a nice ride on a boat on the Hoi An River. The cooking class was fun and we learned how to make rice paper which you need to make spring rolls. (You can always buy them ready-made, in the end it makes life easier. But it was interesting and easy to learn how to make them yourself.)
Hoi An is full of restaurants and that evening we choose Streets, a great restaurant that is also a school for street children. Students are taught culinary arts and hospitality. Many then go on to work in high-end restaurants and hotels, some of them even in New York.
HUE: THE IMPERIAL CITY
The following morning, we drove through the Hai Van Pass, were we enjoyed dramatic scenery, heading for Hue, which was the imperial city from 1802 to 1945, home of the Nguyen dynasty (a feudal dynasty).
Huế was the national capital until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and a communist government was established in Hanoi. While Bảo Đại was briefly proclaimed “Head of State” with the help of the returning French colonialists in 1949 (although not with recognition from the communists and the full acceptance of the Vietnamese people), his new capital was Sài Gòn (Saigon), in the south.
We visited the Citadel, which was the seat of the Nguyen emperors, and inside the Citadel, the forbidden city where only the emperors’ concubines were granted access. Although little remains of it, you can get a sense of what it used to be.
HO CHI MINH CITY & THE MEKONG DELTA
From Hue we flew to Saigon — now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, although the locals still call it Saigon, and I think it suits the city better. A very different city from Hanoi — Ho Chi Minh is modern, more organized and still with very much of a French flavor. I loved that city!
We walked around the French Quarter and the old “Rue Catinat” and also to the bustling markets where we tasted Phô soup, a staple within Vietnamese cuisine. You can choose the chicken or the beef version, and I went for the beef — delicious. It consists of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs — like mint, lemon basil, coriander — and meat or chicken. You can add some lime and chili to make it hotter.
Another of the highlights of the trip was the Mekong Delta and Nine Dragon River Delta. From Saigon, we took a bus and were in the Mekong Delta in about four hours. I must warn you that it is not that distances are so big, but speed is reduced to 70 km per hour, so it takes a while to get to places. On the upside, you can enjoy watching the landscape since you’re riding so slowly. We crossed the Can Tho Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge over the largest distributary of the Mekong River, which was completed in 2010. Along the way we visited some villages, with more markets and producers, of rice paper and rice sweets. We were also taken for a wonderful meal, consisting of a highly-decorated, crispy fish. As odd as it looked, it tasted delicious.
We spent the night at Can Tho, which I have to say, must be the most uninteresting city in Vietnam. Fortunately, the next day, we were taken for a boat ride on the Mekong delta, which is very wide and with muddy wàters that come from the sediments. But we enjoyed the ride through the Cai Rang floating market. There was even a floating petrol station. And we had a chance to sample coconut water on the Mekong Delta.
Back in Saigon, we stayed in a wonderful hotel, the Renaissance Riverside with a great rooftop pool and bar and magnificent views over Saigon. I also enrolled in yet another cooking class, at Hoa Túc, which, to me, proved to be more fun, professional and delicious than the first class. There, I learned to cook a different version of spring rolls. These were fresh spring rolls, filled with rice noodles, shrimp, pork, mint, lettuce leaves, chives and lemon basil. I also prepared a salad with crab, herbs, and green mango with char-grilled chicken. Back home, in Barcelona, I have been preparing this salad for friends, and they always love it. Another favorite was fried rice in a lotus leaves — just amazing.
After the tour, I extended my stay for four more days and flew to the famous beach of Nha Trang. I booked into an eco-friendly resort, Mia Nha Trang which I highly recommend. And relax I did!!
Cristina Mora lives in Barcelona, where she spent seven years at Editorial Anagrama dealing with foreign rights and eight years at Grupo Planeta setting up the Foreign Rights department. In April 2010, she launched her own literary company, Cristina Mora Literary & Film Agency. Her other passions, apart from literature, are travel and gastronomy.