Category Archives: Vietnam
Smoked salmon is so easy to get wrong. Buy the over-farmed or rapid-cure variety and you may find yourself pulling bits of bland stringy stuff out of your teeth, wondering whatever happened to the true taste of the smoked salmon of yesteryear. Get it right, from a fine farmer of happy salmon and the situation flips on its head; silken folds of fish dissolve on the tongue, leaving both a smoky taste - at once tart and salty and succulent with oil - and, of course, the desire for another mouthful.
I’m a massive fan of how they do it at the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, where the salmon is traditionally served with all condiments, muslin-wrapped lemon and a shot of the smoothest sort of vodka that ex-pat oligarchs might use to toast the Mother Country. The star of the platter is home-smoked, from Norway and boy, is it ever good. So good, in fact, that it almost seems a shame to mess with its pure taste by putting anything with it. To spar with the salmon, two small rounds of toasted baguette crowned with different varieties of smoked salmon share the plate. One is marinated in beetroot, Russian-style, giving it sweet earthiness; the other is stained like piccalilli, hot and tart to the tastebuds.
There’s a taste of salmon roe, another of caviar, a shot of cool sour cream and one of softened cubes of onion, but my favourite condiment is that of minced onion with herbs – scattered onto a forkful of smoked salmon with a dash of sour cream, it gives the tastebuds a reason to put on their dancing shoes.
At $19.00 US this isn’t the cheapest of smoked salmon offerings to be found in an international restaurant, but if you like value for money, I’d say that with the generous serving of finest Norwegian salmon and attention to detail in both presentation and quality of ingredients, this is a platter that I won’t forget in a hurry. In homage to a great plate I hereby add it to the Epicurienne Smoked Salmon Hall of Fame.
If you’re Vietnamese and you don’t like Pho, there’s definitely something wrong with your genetic make up. Pronounced ‘FUH’, pho is Vietnam’s national dish and the thought of that single syllable makes my stomach grumble with longing.
Pho’s concept is simple: make a fully-balanced meal fit into a single bowl. The main components are rice noodles, broth and some sort of protein - beef or chicken or seafood, sometimes tripe or meatballs or a combination of different meats and broth. The protein goes into the bowl raw and cooks when the boiling hot broth that has been simmering for some hours is poured over it. The broth varies in strength and flavour depending on the region of Vietnam, often containing spices and herbs like cinnamon and ginger, coriander seed and clove. Once served, the consumer can then season it to their own personal taste with condiments like chilli, spring onions and fresh herbs.
When Monsieur and I were preparing for our trip to Vietnam, pho seemed to pop up everywhere. It was mentioned in all the guides, in online reviews, in restaurant recommendations, and if you look up ‘pho’ on You Tube, you’ll find the likes of Anthony Bourdain trying it out in Ho Chi Minh City and amateur pho chefs demonstrating step-by-step instructions on how to make pho at home. Once in Vietnam, Monsieur and I and enjoyed authentic pho on several occasions, marvelling at the regional subtleties and the many ways in which the simple concept of a meal in a bowl may be interpreted.
The Vietnamese say that Pho is their equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It’s an anti-viral cold-preventative, hangover cure and all-round comfort food. For all of these reasons and because Pho simply tastes good, Epic is a great, big pho fan.
Back in March of this year I was lucky enough to be invited to a food bloggers’ event at a restaurant specialising in pho, called, not surprisingly, Pho. There are now four restaurants in the Pho chain; we went to the one in Great Titchfield Street. There, in a bright basement, we were treated to welcome drinks, including wine or Hue beer, a popular Vietnamese brew. It was Hue all the way for me after that.
First up, we enjoyed learning to make our own summer rolls. I wasn’t exactly adept at this (mine resembled more of a lopsided sausage factory reject than a neat little roll), but I did enjoy eating the results.
And this is what the staff work so hard to produce – vat upon steaming vat of bubbling hot broth.
Back at our very long table, the crowd was like a Who’s Who of London food bloggers, which made for passionate conversation about who’s cooking/eating what, where to shop for the best ingredients and which chefs we rate or otherwise. There were collective aaahs of approval as we nibbled on our summer rolls and dipped into the share platters of Vietnamese salads. Outside it was dark, cold and rainy. Inside at Pho we could taste summer in the fresh papaya salad, delving for the fat prawns in its midst. This platter, called Goi Du Du in Vietnamese, is sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with prawn crackers. Everything (apart from the prawns) crunched in a satisfying way: the batons of papaya, the strips of capsicum, the peanuts, the crackers. It was a welcome antidote to the misery of March weather.
At last, the moment came when we could taste the pho of our choice. On the menu was quite a list of pho varieties – served with steak or brisket, or both, with meatballs, chicken or prawns or a couple of vegetarian versions with tofu or mushrooms. I had Pho Tom – more fat tiger prawns served in chicken stock.
The bowls come with special ladle-like spoons and a selection of condiments with which to bespoke your pho: Vietnamese coriander (which looks like mint but tastes completely different), beansprouts, chilli and lime.
Here’s my bowl of glory, steaming away merrily.
The broth was piping hot, the prawns tender and plump with juice. Lots of happy slurping went on around the table that night and the general consensus was that Pho was modern, affordable, with the freshest of ingredients and therefore definitely had its place in London.
Following the spring rolls, salad, a bowl of Pho and a couple of Hues, I was overflowing with good things and had zero capacity for dessert, which was a shame because the Pho menu boasts banana fritters, pandan pancakes and fresh fruit sorbets with flavours like strawberry with fresh basil. I did, however, cave in to the offer of an iced Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk. I know, I know, it sounds odd, but it’s like a Vietnamese frappuccino and they’re really quite addictive.
So with a round and happy belly I bade farewell to the warm Pho staff and foodie friends, toddling off in the rain in search of an elusive cab, smile on face, with a stomachful of Pho. Methinks that Pho isn’t just the Vietnamese cure-all comfort food, but Vietnamese prozac in a bowl, for it shifts my mood to happy every time.
For further details about the London branches of Pho, go to: www.phocafe.co.uk
As the Vietnamese crow flies, Ha Long Bay looks like a short enough distance from Hanoi (170km), but when you take into account the intermittent traffic and terrible roads en route, it takes a good four hours to get there, one way. Monsieur and I weren’t to be dissuaded from visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site, however. We’d already marvelled at its natural beauty, both captured in photographs and as a location for films such as Indochine. With a name meaning ‘Descending Dragon’ and its maze of limestone karsts and islets spread across more than 1500 square kilometres, we were now determined to see it for ourselves.
Sure enough, the drive was long, but well worth the subsequent fatigue. Our guide had booked us our very own junk to take us around part of the Bay and we were fascinated to see one of the five floating fishing villages of the area.
In total, the population of Ha Long Bay clocks in at around 1600 people. They’re sustained by the Bay’s own micro-economy, which includes capture fishing, pearl cultivation and tourism. These people are water people. They live on water and make their living from it. Our guide told us that some of the fishing village inhabitants have never set foot on the mainland. My jaw dropped at that little nugget of information, because it was so unexpected. Yet, looking around us, we could see that these fisher folk were at complete ease here. Perhaps the thought of a mainland with cars and roads and traffic and land-lubbing ways was too much for them. Everything they needed was here: on, in or around the water. Why leave?
The scale of some of the islets dwarfed the little floating villages, making their inhabitants look like insects. As we passed this house, we watched this chap enjoying a quiet beer. Judging by the wealth of his catch, already organised in a grid of plastic containers, he deserved a break. The freshly-painted balustrade, doors and window surrounds showed that this fisherman wasn’t just industrious; he was house-proud, too.
It was only our second day in Vietnam, but we could already see that it was never too young to learn about commerce. Here, a mother and her tiny daughter row across the Bay together, going from boat to boat selling snacks and soft drinks. Their business was a mobile floating shop.
Here’s another floating shop, this time stocked with various fruit and vegetables – a floating green grocer’s.
This aspect of Ha Long Bay was an eye-opener. It made me consider all the things we take for granted in a regular life on land and wonder about how they translated into life on the water. Was there a water doctor to call when your child fell ill? Would you learn to swim in a bay where your childish feet could touch the bottom? Or would you be literally thrown in at the deep end, and learn with the fish? How could you hide a burgeoning romance from curious parents when everyone lives at such close quarters? What would you do if you were born allergic to Neptune’s spoils.
Fortunately, Monsieur and I don’t have fish allergies (apart from the memory of a Killer Oyster that once caused me intense discomfort), for the crew on board the junk had prepared us lunch and much of it had been fished by the dwellers of Descending Dragon Bay.
(Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City)
Monsieur and I had seen how dense Hanoi traffic was and we’d had a brief lesson on how to cross the road from the caring concierge at the Metropole Hotel. Now we just had to do it. Easier said than done.
You see, the traffic just keeps coming. It doesn’t stop or slow; it swerves to miss hitting you. As for pedestrian crossings, they exist but are mere suggestions. Sometimes the traffic will stop at a red light, but from what we could see there’s no guarantee. After a fortnight in Vietnam, we would be experts at street crossing, but for now we just had to do it once without becoming Vietnamese road kill.
In spite of the concierge’s encouraging words about using corners where possible to cross and following a local human shield, it’s not for the faint-hearted to take that first step into the road and trust that the last thing on any motorcyclist’s mind is wiping bits of dead tourist off his front wheel.
That first day in Hanoi, Monsieur and I waited at a corner near the hotel. We watched for the break in the traffic that never came. Finally, heart in mouth and with a quick prayer launched skyward, we left the kerb and kept going. “Don’t hesitate,” the concierge had told us, “it’s dangerous to hesitate. Once you start walking, don’t stop until you get to the other side.” We heeded his words and obviously lived to tell the tale, but upon my word, it was terrifying . Crossing the road Vietnam-style goes against everything you’re taught when small. Look left, look right, look around. Forget it all. Don’t look at anything, just walk and have faith in your fellow human beings not to squish you.
As we walked, the traffic swooped around us, not slowing, but buzzing as it passed on by. On the other side of the road, I realised I’d held my breath. Heart racing, I opened my mouth and swallowed lots of humid Hanoi air.
As with learning many new skills, the first time is often the hardest. This was the case with street crossing in Vietnam. We quickly learned to shadow the locals who were crossing the same roads and mimicked them, walking steadily without stopping, trusting everyone on wheels to miss us. Looking back, I’ve had more serious near-misses with mopeds in Naples, but Naples was not on my mind in Vietnam.
So if you ever find yourself in Vietnam, you will have to re-learn your road-crossing rules. Do as we did and you’ll be fine. Take a local human shield where possible, walk steadily and straight and do not stop. With a bit of luck you will reach the other side. Again and again and again.
(The Sofitel Legend Metropole exterior – colonial style at its best)
Driving into central Hanoi is like entering a battleground of traffic and people. The broad avenues invite seas of mopeds and cyclos and bicycles to fill them, with all the noise and hustle that goes with a dense population getting about on zippy two-wheeled vehicles. No matter how prepared you may be for your first visit to Hanoi, it will still come as a sensory overload. After such a long journey to reach Hanoi, our first Vietnamese destination, Monsieur and I decided to buffer ourselves against potential culture shock by making reservations at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, near the Hanoi Opera House and a short walk from picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake.
(The lobby in the Opera Wing)
This is a hotel with history. The Metropole was built in 1901 and for the past century has witnessed the comings and goings of presidents, politicians, actors and writers. For many of the past hundred years, it has been considered one of the best hotels in Hanoi. Monsieur and I were interested to note that both Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand were listed as former guests, Graham Greene penned part of ‘The Quiet American’ at the Metropole, and the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Robert de Niro and Cathérine Deneuve have graced its corridors. During the American War, correspondents and diplomats used the Metropole as their base, and in 1992 Sofitel reopened this Hanoi landmark following extensive restoration.
Our expectations were understandably high as our taxi pulled over in front of the hotel, standing like a large, white oasis of calm in the midst of hectic Hanoi. The building was trademark colonial in style, with evergreen shutters at each window and a pair of vintage cars parked by its entrance, one of which was a beautiful old Metropole Citroen Traction.
(Olde worlde telephones are found in both lobby areas)
In the lobby, we noted the wood panelling and old-fashioned ceiling fans as we were greeted by staff in suits or flowing white Ao Dai, the graceful tunic and trouser sets that form part of the traditional dress of Vietnam. “Bonjour Monsieur! Bonjour Madame!” they chirped eagerly. Quite naturally, or so we thought, Monsieur and I replied to such greetings in French, but we were rewarded with blank stares of miscomprehension. Certainly, French used to be widely spoken in Vietnam, but nowadays English has taken over. French is only really spoken amongst French visitors or by the older generation who learned the language under French rule. Still, we gave the staff ten out of ten for trying, and wondered if Sofitel might give them some in-house French-for-hospitality lessons. They’re part of a French hotel group, after all, so it couldn’t hurt.
(Night table in Opera Wing room)
I’d hoped we’d be staying in the colonial wing, but on arrival we were upgraded to a room in the modern Opera wing to the rear of the hotel. Apparently the rooms are larger there, but the Colonial Wing rooms have ceiling fans and antiques. Would we mind?
To reach the Opera Wing, one of the Ao Dai girls led us past moon cake displays and boutiques and restaurants and old fashioned telephones to a lift up to the executive floor. There we were greeted and seated in the club room and offered tropical juice welcome drinks as we were checked in and our passports taken for police registration. This was certainly civilised. There was an afternoon tea buffet in an adjacent room, where we were encouraged to refuel before tending to the serious business of unpacking. Monsieur and I were only too happy to oblige. There were mini croques monsieurs, tiny tuna rolls, little beef sandwiches, cakes and petits fours aplenty. Here we were in Hanoi Heaven. No traffic required.
(I wish we had a double vanity like this at home!)
Eventually we tore ourselves away from the delicious spread and headed along the corridor to our room. It was huge, decorated in an exotically modern-meets-traditional style, with swirly mosaics in the bathroom, black and white photos of the hotel in times of yore, and deep red accents. We’d be sleeping on one of those dreamy, marshmallowy Sofitel beds, all huge and white and soft and just calling out to us to jump on board. The complimentary bottled water was dressed in little black and red tuxedo bottle holders and the sleeping area was separated from the bathroom’s double vanity by sheer curtains swathed elegantly to the side. A touch of romance was a claw-footed bath with a bowl of rose petals located just next to the expansive vanity. Sadly, we wouldn’t have time to try it out, but it was a lovely surprise – both decorative and with purpose. For the time-poor visitor to Hanoi (that was us) there was a glass-walled shower. The loo was separate, as it should be, but elegant though it all was, as there were no solid doors either into or out of the bathroom area, it wouldn’t do for people who demand total privacy for their ablutions.
(Where bedroom meets bathroom)
Back in the bedroom there was a flat screen TV on the wall and two desks – one by the window overlooking the swimming pool and colonial building beyond, the other across a corner near the door. This room was ideal for the high-powered travelling businessperson. And us. In a luxurious hotel room such as this, I almost wished there were nothing of interest to entice me beyond the door.
Alas, this was Hanoi and there was an incredible amount to experience and explore beyond the sanctuary of this hotel, so we braced ourselves for the tidal waves of traffic and went out to see what Hanoi was all about. Before allowing us to leave the hotel, however, the concierge insisted on teaching us how to cross the road. Funny. I really thought I’d finished with those lessons at the age of five.
(The claw-footed bath with requisite rose petals. Rose petals? How very decadent! We’ll be bathing in milk next…)
(Hoan Kiem Lake in Central Hanoi. Don’t be fooled by how calm it looks; there are tens of thousands of mopeds buzzing around its perimeter!)
Flying into Hanoi saw my nose pressed firmly against the window, craning to view the Red River in all its glory. With such a bird’s eye view it was possible to see why it had been named ‘Red’, for the earth colours it a rich terracotta. It is a mighty beast, this river, and cannot be trusted. It certainly feeds the agriculture of the region but also floods regularly, causing havoc and destruction.
Back on the ground we were soon inside the airport, where we had our first proper taste of Vietnamese bureaucracy whilst waiting for our visas. They’d already been approved through an online visa agency but could only be issued in person, so here we were. A wordless attendant gestured at us to hand over our passports and complete another form, which only replicated information already given through the visa agency. Then he waved us around to the other end of a glass-walled office to pay the 50 USD processing fee and retrieve our passports. Flipping through the pages we checked that they contained our visas, which they did, but with our surnames first and middle names second. I guess they don’t understand how our names work, but in any other country, getting the names muddled could result in the document being rendered invalid. Curious.
(Moped rider near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Many women wear bandannas to protect them against traffic fumes, but also to protect their skin from sun exposure. Light skin is beautiful skin in Vietnam.)
Next we presented our documents at queue-less immigration counters where surly men in uniforms scowled as they stamped our passports. There was a total lack of welcome. You might be forgiven for feeling like an intruder with first impressions like these, but we were so excited to be in Vietnam, at long last, that we dismissed the grumpiness and looked forward to better experiences elsewhere.
Thanks to the time-consuming bureaucracy of immigration, the baggage handlers looked super efficient with all bags waiting for us on the carrousel. Now we just needed cash, so we approached an ATM. There are a lot of zeros involved with the Vietnamese currency, called Vietnamese Dong, so it confused me as I extracted 1.5million Dong, hoping beyond hope that I’d done my calculations correctly and I now held the equivalent of £50.00 in my hand, not £5,000.00 or some other outrageous sum.
Then we negotiated a cool 270,000 Dong for a taxi to our hotel in central Hanoi. It sounds terrifying, to pay 270,000 in any currency for anything less than a super yacht or piece of property. It was, in fact, equivalent to $16.00 USD and the tariff was government-regulated so the haggling wasn’t really necessary; our driver just tried it on a bit. At the end of the fare he was to receive a nice tip, so bless his Vietnamese cotton socks, he shouldn’t have worried so much at the start.
(Traffic in central Hanoi.)
As we left the airport, the road was immediately bumpy with potholes, which are a common issue throughout Vietnam, but I wasn’t interested in how comfortable our ride was; the views around us were attracting my full attention. Not only did the mountains behind us resemble those monochromatic ink-wash paintings found in Chinese restaurants, all around us were women wearing conical hats as they rode their bikes past rice paddies of the sort of vibrant green that tells of fertile land and plenty of precipitation. It was like travelling through an oriental wonderland.
Our driver didn’t seem too confident on the road; his brow bore the concentration furrows of a relatively new driver. We soon stopped for petrol at a service station and I watched one of the female attendants who’d tied a bandanna around her face to protect her from the fumes. She watched me back with smiling eyes and when we left, I waved at her. Her eyes lit up and she returned the wave with vigour. This was more like it: some friendly, smiling faces instead of the surliness back at Hanoi Airport.
(More traffic in central Hanoi. Crossing the road takes some doing in this sort of traffic.)
There weren’t many cars on the road; but it was positively teeming with two-wheeled vehicles, and from time to time we spotted a cart being towed along in the traffic by skinny oxen with horns that could do a lot of damage to a car windscreen, should push come to shove. As we drank in our new surrounds, it amazed us how many people could squeeze onto a tiny moped. Whole families, babies included, seemed able to fit on the one seat. Mopeds and motorcycles were the main form of transport here, carrying everything from people to bamboo cages filled with chickens or other animals destined for market or even the odd oven. If that weren’t a balancing act in itself, then the manoeuvres of the moped riders as they weaved daringly through the heavy traffic or drove out of side streets at right angles into the traffic flow without looking made them the equivalent of two-wheeled contortion artists. For these riders, no gap in the traffic was too small, and the air was alive with the honking of horns. This was one busy city and it was easy to think that it might just never slow down.
(Mopeds really DO go everywhere in Hanoi.)
We were now approaching central Hanoi. The houses lining the main thoroughfare on which we were travelling were tall and skinny. Many of them operated businesses from their ground floor room. We saw Pho bars, coffin makers, grocery shops and florists. Hairdressers had the freedom of the footpaths. Intrigued, we noticed that they set up shop by hanging a mirror on a wall and placing a chair for their clients on the footpath. Mounds of shorn hair grew from the ground around the chairs populated by a clientele who seemed perfectly happy to be groomed in public. Vietnam was already full of surprises yet we’d only been here for a short while. In any case, Monsieur and I were happy about that, because different was exactly what we’d signed up for when we decided to visit this fascinating country and different it was certainly proving to be.
It doesn’t seem to matter that Viet Grill is located a good twenty minute trek from the nearest tube station; last Friday evening saw it bursting at the seams and I’m quite certain it wasn’t Rent-a-Crowd. Monsieur and I were there to review this well-reputed bastion of Vietnamese cuisine in London and, in spite of having a reservation, for a split second I wondered whether we might have to wait to be seated; that’s how busy it was.
We rapidly realised that such fears were ill-founded as a waiter hailed a manager called Nam to look after us. We were soon sitting at a table blessed with elbow room, which looked to be the exception to the rule in this hive of Friday night activity.
Monsieur had already experienced Viet Grill, having dined here with a group of friends last December. I was the Viet Grill virgin in our party but this did not hold me back. As I checked out the recently-refurbished interior with feature fish tank embedded in one wall and a neon-lit shrine above the bar, Nam reappeared to ask whether we would like to choose our own dishes or would we trust him to order on our behalf. Before Monsieur could blink I had committed us both to Selection by Nam. Yes, Viet Grill’s staff knew I was there and why, but I was curious to see which dishes they thought would please us the most, especially as I’d spent the past couple of days devouring the menu on their website and fantasising about dishes like Saigon Ceviche Lobster and Crab Salad and Wicked Crispy Frog. I wondered, would such things feature as the staff favourites?
The first dish to appear was the Lotus Stem Salad. Described as comprising ‘shredded pork, shrimps, Vietnamese basil, peanuts and lime zest served with a sweet chilli dressing,’ this was a happy confusion of textures – the lotus adding a cool crunch, the pork contrasting in its softness and the overall effect reminiscent of summer by the beach. The Vietnamese basil, lime and chilli added Far Eastern flavour, altogether tangy and tart and hot against the tongue. Every single ingredient was served so fresh that there could have been a seaside farm in the kitchen. Thus far, Monsieur and I were impressed, but would our satisfaction survive the evening? Let’s find out.
(Lotus Stem Salad)
In addition to selecting the plates now appearing before us, Nam had also chosen our wine. I already knew that Viet Grill had enlisted the services of wine guru, Malcolm Gluck, to match wines to their dishes, and various reviewers before me have found this to be one of the unexpected bonuses of an evening at this Kingsland Road restaurant. Therefore, I was quietly confident that Nam would choose the right bottle for us, but when a Gewurztraminer appeared, my heart sank. Monsieur and I usually steer clear of this grape variety, as it tends to be too sweet and fruity for our taste. Choosing to trust Nam’s judgement, however, paid dividends. The Hunawihr Gewurztraminer Reserve d’Alsace (2007) matched particularly well with everything we ate that evening, especially as Vietnamese food tends to include a sweet element somewhere within. To its credit, our Gewurztraminer sang along with the food without being a diva. That is, its zesty flavour was complementary to the food without being overpowering. Thus far, it was a perfect match.
A plate of Beef Vinh arrived next, followed by Chicken Royale. I’m not the world’s biggest carnivore, but when Monsieur tried the Beef Vinh he described it as “so soft, it’s like eating cotton.” I couldn’t resist, so tried a piece of the beef that had arrived in kebab-style sans-skewer, slivered and rolled before being charcoal grilled and served in bite-size chunks. A dipping sauce next to it was later identified as fermented soy and although adding a dash of something extra, it wasn’t really needed because the beef was so tender and flavoursome, thanks to the addition of five spice, that it was stand-alone melt-in-mouth joy to our taste buds.
As for the Chicken Royale, Monsieur gobbled up his share with relish. He’d ordered this dish on his previous visit and thoroughly enjoyed it on both occasions. Slightly sweet, the chicken is free range (thank the Lord, because happy hens are tasty hens) marinated in cinnamon and fresh herbs before being roasted and dressed in a soy broth, giving it an almost honeyed flavour. Apart from adding to the taste, the marinade also gives the chicken a deep golden shine, so not only does it taste good, this chicken looks as royal as its name on its simple bed of house salad.
A word about the salad garnishes at Viet Grill – there’s no floppy lettuce here. Everything tasted as if it was just plucked from a homestead’s vege patch, rinsed in spring water and shaken dry before landing on the plate. Surely to get such a simple thing as garnish so very right shows that the people in the kitchen care about their produce and attention to detail. Whoever supplies Viet Grill with its ingredients is someone I’d dearly like to supply my fridge at home.
The next surprise to arrive was a whole oven-baked mackerel, eyes and fins and all. It had been marinated in lemongrass and wrapped in banana leaves, according to the menu. A waitress boned it deftly at the table, leaving us to dig in, which we did repeatedly. Mackerel is quite an oily fish, so often seen in the form of smoked fillets on supermarket shelves. This was a whole new take on mackerel for me. Mouths full, Monsieur and I hummed our happiness back and forth at each other across the table as we demolished the entire fish, leaving only head, tail and a few random bones behind. The lemongrass had imbued the flesh with a delicate, sweet perfume and the skin was so perfectly cooked that it lacked the usual slippery sensation that the skin of an oily fish so often has, and, without being cremated beyond edibility, the skin instead had a fine crispness to it meaning that we ate most of that, too.
Nam interrupted us part-way through our mackerel munch-fest to ask how we liked our meal. “The mackerel is delicious!” we enthused. “I know.” he agreed, “I take it home twice a week for dinner for me and my girlfriend.” If I lived closer to Viet Grill, I’d do exactly the same as Nam and take this fish home often. Not only is it good for you (mackerel is rich in Omega 3s), Viet Grill has a take-away menu so if you don’t want to dine in, you can have this dish at home for an unbelievable £8.00 (it costs £9.00 if you eat in; a fact that Monsieur and I cannot quite fathom because it’s such unbelievable value for such a sizeable and delicious fish).
Which brings me onto pricing. Considering the quality of what Monsieur and I were trying at Viet Grill, none of it would break the bank. And if you are still hardened against spending your hard-earned beans in these tough economic times, there’s a two-course Recession Set Meal for £9.50 per person. For soups, pho and One Dish Meals, if you dine before 3.00pm you can do so for £5.00 a plate (or large bowl) in these categories. The wine may set you back a few quid, but if you check out the retail prices on the internet, you’d be surprised that the restaurant mark-ups are so modest here.
Monsieur and I took it in turns to visit the restaurant conveniences in the basement, amazed to find another dining room below with even larger feature aquarium and yet more pho-slurping patrons. The loos were Ally MacBeal-style, that is, unisex, but the layout meant that this was not a problem if you prefer a bit of space between you and the opposite sex when you tinkle. The cubicles are spacious, with ledges for handbags which are great for people with O.C.D. about loo floors, all the fittings are brand new, and the colour scheme is a crisp white and olive green with dark wood accents. The only thing I’d mention is that the floor is slippery when wet, so take care, especially if you’re onto your second bottle of Gewurztraminer, as we were.
Now we just had to do our best with a Vietnamese dessert. Nam recommended tapioca cake, and sensing that The Blogger and her companion were close to maximum stomach capacity, brought just the one with two spoons. That was very considerate of him. The last time Monsieur and I ate tapioca was at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. That day it was simply prepared, served with a peanut and sugar dip that became a magnet for all sorts of wasps and jungle insect life. The Viet Grill tapioca cake was bright green and gelatinous to the point of being a bit rubbery. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of nuts, it was perfectly pleasant, but lacked in the va-va-voom of the other dishes we’d tried. Having travelled through Vietnam, Monsieur and I know that Vietnamese sweets can often be a bit alien to Westerners, so we didn’t allow this minor blip to colour our views of the evening. For all we know, a Vietnamese connoisseur of tapioca pudding might deem this a fine example but for us it was akin to eating a sweetly perfumed eraser.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese coffee was also a slight disappointment, tasting a little like a Westernised version of the usual coffee poured over ice with condensed milk. It was still sweet andchocolatey, which is what I so love about Vietnamese coffee, but for some reason the Viet Grill version made us think of Starbucks frappuccino, so next time we’ll probably end with the Iced Jasmine Tea, just for a change. Besides, I adore the subtlety of jasmine tea but have never tried it iced before. It sounds like a glassful of eastern exoticism. Alas, there’s only so much one stomach will take in a sitting.
On our way out we waited to thank Nam, who’d disappeared into his back-of-house domain. As a waiter helped me to track him down, he allowed me to poke my head into the kitchen. This was where our fine meal had been prepared and was a revelation. Brightly lit with work surfaces that could well be used to advertise kitchen cleaning products, the chef’s team was busy at work – chopping, steaming, plating, stirring and more. In spite of it being 10.30pm, they didn’t look anywhere close to slowing down. Back in the dining room, a few tables were now free but the space remained close to full.
Then, there was Nam, asking how we’d found our Viet Grill experience. We thanked him for a thoroughly enjoyable evening and asked him to pass on our thanks to the other staff who’d cared for us so efficiently throughout the evening. Then we sent our compliments to the chef/s, commending in particular the mackerel, which Monsieur and I then talked about all the way home.
Yes, Monsieur and I will gladly return to Viet Grill. We highly recommend the Lotus Salad, Chicken Royale, Vinh Beef and Oven-baked Mackerel. If you follow in our footsteps, just make sure you order those dishes and you’ll leave happy. As for me, next time I’d be tempted to try that Wicked Crispy Frog, mostly because the name alone makes me smile, but partly because I’ve never before eaten frog and would like to try it, just the once.
Even though I didn’t meet him, I must now extend my thanks to the owner of Viet Grill, Hieu Trung Bui, who offered me the chance to review his establishment. Thank you, Hieu. I have a feeling we’ll be back for more mackerel, soon, because just thinking about it makes me dribble onto my keyboard. With food of such quality, at such reasonable prices, you can Viet Grill me, any day.
Follow VietGrill on Twitter: @caytrevietgrill
Or visit their website for more information: http://www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk/
When Monsieur and I travelled through Vietnam some time back, this fascinating country and its people had such a profound effect on me that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Every time I think of our journey, my mind fills with such a kaleidoscope of vistas and tastes and people and experiences that it overwhelms. But now, sixteen months later, I’m going to try to share our experiences.
To start with, here’s a synopsis of how we did it. We didn’t see everything that we wanted to see, because Vietnam is a big place with troublesome roads and slow trains and we only had two weeks within which to learn how to cross the roads and explore as much of the country as possible. The upshot of that is that there’s plenty to keep us busy when we go back one day. And we will go back one day. If I could wangle it, I’d go back right this minute.
GETTING THERE AND BACK:
Monsieur and I flew on Eva Air from London to Bangkok because direct flights from London to Vietnam are exorbitant and this way we’d both save money and see a little bit of Thailand. It’s significantly cheaper for UK residents to fly to Bangkok and then hop across to Vietnam on one of the region’s low cost airlines. In our case we flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi, and from Ho Chi Minh City back to Bangkok. Air Asia is cheap and efficient, but the baggage allowance is a meagre 15 kilos. Going out, this wasn’t a problem and my packed suitcase only weighed 10 kilos, which is somewhat of an achievement for this girl scout who likes to be prepared for all eventualities. Quite naturally, as we travelled about, Monsieur and I picked up more baggage weight in the form of clothes and gifts for family and friends, so that by the time we left Vietnam, our baggage excess was such that we had to pay a hefty $125 US dollars. The way we looked at it this was that once added to the cost of the flights themselves it just made the flights feel more regular in price as opposed to a real bargain. You have been warned.
Internally we flew Vietnam Airlines, which we found to be pretty good. We later found out that they have a terrible reputation but that wasn’t our experience at all. Had we had more time, we would have liked to try the train that travels up and down Vietnam, but unfortunately the journey times were too long to be practical for us.
So here’s what we got up to. It would be great if you pick out something that you’d like to hear about, leave it in the comments and I’ll write it up for you.
Day 1 – Arrive in Bangkok. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Swim off the travel grime and enjoy lovely buffet at the hotel.
Day 2 – Breakfast by the river. Hire a driver to take us around Bangkok for 5 hours for the equivalent of a 15 minute cab ride in London. We manage to take in the Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace and a vibrant weekend market before returning to the hotel. Cocktails at the Sirocco Bar with fantastic views over Bangkok and dinner at the Blue Elephant.
Day 3 – Fly to Hanoi. Have fun with immigration officials and ATMs at Hanoi airport. Stay at the beautiful Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Learn to cross streets without being mown down by a tidal wave of mopeds. Walk to old town via Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ngoc Son temple. Circle the lake. Dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant at the hotel.
Day 4 – Take tour to Halong Bay. Long day. Epic ingests an entire dish of MSG. By herself. And suffers the consequences.
Day 5 – Walk around Hanoi. Visit Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton. Just about evaporate in the heat and humidity.
Day 6 – Fly to Danang. Pass China Beach on way to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel. Lunch at Banana Leaf. Do walking tour of Old Town – temples, Japanese Bridge, a ‘real’ Vietnamese home etc. Visit Yaly tailors. Dinner at Mango Rooms.
Day 7 – Fitting at Yaly then a lazy day at nearby Cua Dai Beach. Lunch at the beach. Dinner at Brothers Café.
Day 8 – Fly to Nha Trang. Stay at Six Senses resort. Laze around at the beach and in the pool. Dinner and DVDs in our room. We need to slow down for a couple of days, and so we do just that.
Day 9 – All meals taken at the hotel. The much-needed chilling-out period after so much travelling helps a lot so we spend another day at the beach.
Day 10 – Travel by road to Dalat. Looks close on map. Takes hours each way. Visit our driver’s family shrine, rest stop in village, see Dalat train station, Prenn Falls. See coffee/ tapioca/sugar cane plantations. Afternoon at Dalat Palace Golf Club. Interesting drive back to Nha Trang with our fascinating driver. Much of our conversation is taken up by what Vietnamese eat, which is just about everything.
Day 11 – Another day chilling out. Vietnamese coffee rocks. We watch Vietnamese musicians at dinner. We also have a sunburn relief massage with fresh aloe vera. I’d never had a massage before. What total decadence!
Day 12 – Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. It rains buckets. Visit the post office, haggle with street vendors, give thanks for safe travels at Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk to Reunification Palace. Dinner at M Bar with great views over river. That river is a floating highway, even at night.
Day 13 – take tour out of HCMC. Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and My Tho on the Mekong Delta. Boat ride to Ben Tre for lunch. Coconut candy factory, snakes and longboats. Cao Dai Temple. Lacquerware factory visit. Dinner with Adam from Vietnam Travel Notes – we go to Bin Thanh Market together. REALLY good night!
Day 14 – last day in Vietnam. Shopping in town. Lunch at Lemongrass. Dong Khoi. Back to the airport. Long delay because of riots in Bangkok. Stay at The Peninsula Hotel.
Day 15 – Fly home with a head full of wonderful, colourful memories of Vietnam.
+16 months – Epic finally gets around to blogging about it.
Monsieur and I were floating about on a junk in Ha Long Bay, the Unesco wonder site that is a maze of jagged islands and floating fishermen’s villages, when we encountered a tasty condiment on the lunch table. It appeared with a plate of cucumber slices with floral edging, an indicator of Vietnamese cuisine’s obsession with carving fruit and vegetables into fascinating shapes. Next to the cucumber plate was a little dish of greyish powder. Our guide, Han, helped us prepare it by grinding some black pepper onto the powder and squeezing a wedge of lime over it. Now the dipping dish contained a watery grey sludge with black specks, but Han was adamant that this “Vietnamese spice” would be delicious once we dipped the cucumber into it.
I love cucumber, but Monsieur isn’t a huge fan, and that was about to prove a good thing. Chopsticks ready for some culinary action, I tentatively dipped a piece of cucumber into the grey stuff and was pleasantly surprised by the taste. Mmm, this was good! A bit salty, but not overpowering, with a je ne sais quoi about it and that limey citrus tang. Monsieur was suspicious. He tried a couple of pieces before putting his chopsticks down and waiting for something a bit more cooked to appear. Meanwhile, I polished off all the cucumber and most of the dipping sauce.
For the rest of the day I kept wondering what that spice was and where I could buy some to take home to the Epic Kitchen Cupboard, but there were so many other distractions that it was only when we were back in the car en route to Hanoi that I remembered to ask Han.
“You know that dipping mixture that we had with the cucumber, Han?”
“Yes,” he replied
“Well, what was it exactly? I’d love to take some home with me.” I continued.
Han’s face lit up, obviously pleased to have impressed a tourist with something so simple.
“It’s MSG!” he said, “You know it? Mono sodium glutamate.”
Hoping that Han hadn’t noticed my involuntary flinch, I quickly changed the subject.
My next thought was of my mother, who’s bound to freak out when she hears that her beloved daughter has almost single-handedly eaten an entire dipping dish of MSG. Gazing out the car window, I tried to forget my error and what physical effects it may have, watching instead the stream of workers cycling home, the girls’ ao dais flapping behind them.
The following morning I woke at 3am and couldn’t blame it on jet lag. Nope. My mouth was parched, tongue stuck to the upper palate, and my stomach was gurgling in an ominous fashion. I gulped down an entire bottle of water, eager to rid myself of the MSG dry horrors. For the rest of the trip I’d be keeping an eagle eye out for the evil grey spice.
Obviously, we couldn’t control MSG going INTO our food in Vietnam, not when other people are preparing your meals for you, but on the occasion when we asked for salt and pepper, we often received that grey powder in the place of salt. Now that we knew what it was, we could avoid it.
The MSG presence is one indicator that while tourism is big in Vietnam these days, sometimes they still don’t understand what the tourist might expect or need. That will come with time, I’m certain. In the meantime, if you’re travelling to Vietnam, take some little sachets of salt in your luggage. Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t use salt, nor does it use soy sauce and the omnipresent fish sauce can be a bit overpowering for some; delicious, yes, but you have to get past the smell first. We also found that the Vietnamese are keen to serve fries with almost any meal, so if you don’t fancy your fries with a sprinkling of MSG, make sure you have one of those salt sachets to hand.
Click here to read an interesting article by Alex Renton about the pros and cons of MSG.