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.
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.
(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.
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.
Here’s part two of Andrew Zimmern’s jaunt through Vietnam, sampling some of the more palatable options of Vietnamese cuisine (beef salad, Pho, civet coffee).
Part three involves grilled fish (come on! how tame can you get?), sparrows and scorpions, and ‘tender’ bull’s penis:
Part four sees Andrew Zimmern tucking into silk worms and snails at a Hanoi local’s home:
This is what I call eating vicariously!
Quite by chance, before leaving on our long-awaited trip I caught an episode of the Hairy Bikers where the bearded lads ‘do’ Vietnam.
For any of you who haven’t had the pleasure of watching the Hairy Bikers on TV, Si and Dave are a pair of cooking enthusiasts who travel the world on their motorbikes, making meals by the roadside, or in one particular episode, in the shade of a tree in the middle of Africa. They then feed their new local pals the Hairy Biker version of local cuisine. This really is a cookery show with a difference.
See below for the Vietnam episode’s summary, which I cheekily lifted from their website:
Saigon’s a foodie paradise, but two-wheeled chaos rules… Going with the traffic flow, Si & Dave cook shrimp & pork on sugar cane in the middle of a frenzied ferry landing, then chow down on Vietnam War fare: deep-fried scorpions, coconut worms, and a part of a goat that wouldn’t make it onto most menus. Biking on up the coast, they discover the delicious national dish pho, and crispy Hué pancakes cooked in the street below the mysterious Cham towers. But by the time they reach Hoi An, we’re down to one Hairy Biker; Si has broken his foot, which leaves Dave pedaling a very large Geordie around in a rickshaw. How’re they going to get to Hanoi, now that Si can’t ride his motorbike?
Si’s broken foot forces our Hairy Bikers onto the world’s slowest train, crawling towards Hanoi (luckily there’s scorched dried squid for snacks). In Hué, Dave manages to pedal Si’s rickshaw to the Emperors Palace, to cook Paddy-Field Pork, Spring Rolls and Sticky Rice in a monsoon. Then it’s on to Hanoi and the delights of a motorized handicapped cart, ferrying the boys between two extremes of Vietnamese cuisine: French super-chef Didier’s mouth-watering buffet, and a local bar’s own street-food surprise (Si thinks it’s duck, Dave thinks it’s suckling pig. Both are wrong). Their final destination is the stunning Ha Long Bay, to grill Cha Ca fish and make Crab and Fish Noodle Soup on a junk. With two beautiful Vietnamese twins serenading them with harp music, our weary adventurers experience heaven at last…
I saw the second part, with Si-the-invalid being pedalled around in a rickshaw by patient Dave. What better way to deal with a broken foot and being unable to jump on a motorbike? The boys visited a street café to try the local Hanoi delicacies, but what was that platter of unidentifiable meat? Dog. That’s right, the boys were served steaming pieces of dog. Blurgh. I immediately lost my appetite for anything that once had legs.
Dave being, as ever, a good sport and not wanting to offend the sweet-faced waiter, chomped on a bit of deceased woof-woof and pronounced the taste a cross between duck and pork. However, Si’s face said it all. That was one dish they would not be finishing.
I have to thank you for that information, Dave, as it has removed any need to eat dog in order to know what it tastes like. You may rest assured that on our trip to Vietnam I will be avoiding meals that consist of anything that may once had raised its leg by a tree or been called ‘Fido’.
Monsieur and I are currently on a two-week tour of Vietnam. It’s pretty thrilling, considering we just arrived in Hanoi today and so far the fascination is huge, the public is not necessarily a fan of European faces unless they bring money into their lives, the food is great and crossing the road is frankly suicidal. Speaking of money, I barely had time to work out the Thai currency (roughly 60 Baht to the pound) before we hopped across to Vietnam where it’s a great many thousands of Dong to the pound. My brain is barely keeping up.
I have a few posts on their way (pending access to the internet) concerning Vietnamese cuisine. ‘If you can catch it, you can eat it’ is one motto I’ve come across during research for this trip. Luckily I haven’t seen any roasting dogs yet because I would probably have an Epic Moment if I did, but we have already come across quite a few people with handicaps, none of whom have time to sit back and feel sorry for themselves; they’re all out there working in different ways, mostly selling souvenirs. One was blind with a seamless patch of healed skin where one eye should have been. The poor chap was playing music for small change. Another was completely legless, dressed in the popular army green fatigues and selling postcards from his cyclo, which he must have had to pedal with his hands. A misshapen woman spoke to us in perfect English as she tried to lure us into her shop. Those are just a few of the faces we’ve come across so far. You have to be incredibly tough not to bankrupt yourself by not handing out all your cash to these folk. We have no idea of how lucky we are.
Will write more soon. Monsieur and I are off to Halong Bay tomorrow morning (early!!). If you haven’t watched it recently, rent a copy of Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve. Halong Bay is where the slaves are sent for auction. Hopefully, we’ll escape without being E-bayed to the highest bidder/s!
Will write more soon…