• Top six reads to inspire some armchair travel

Vietnam passes the taste test | Activity Holidays | Travel | Express.co.uk


Junks at Ha Long Bay (Image: Matthew King/Getty Images)

THERE’S a knack to crossing the road in Vietnam.

You pick your moment then step out into the non-stop traffic and keep moving at a steady pace until you reach the other side.

The cars and hundreds of mopeds with riders carrying anything from shopping to livestock, chairs and even trees, simply drive around you.

It made our Vespa Adventure in Hanoi even more of an experience when we were taken as pillion passengers to some of the capital’s best eating places.

Related articles

Vietnam president dead: How did Tran Dai Quang die?

London Heathrow flight horror as Briton dies on Vietnam Airlines fl…

Met by four smiling Vespa riders and tour guide Finn it was an ideal introduction to the city’s old quarter as well as an entrée into Vietnam’s fresh and diverse cuisine.

Up on the roof terrace among greenery and fairy lights at Café Eden, beside St Joseph’s Cathedral, Finn introduced us to Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk (delicious, actually) and two drivers delivered a bag of nemchea – fermented pot roast pork – for an impromptu starter.

We were going on to several other venues but Finn told us the most important meal of the day in Vietnam is breakfast: “You don’t skip breakfast here,” he said. “Even if you work in an office you go in to switch on the computer then go to eat.”

Our next stop was Ray Quan, only feet from the railway track that runs a thousand miles to Ho Chi Minh City. We watched its stately progress perched on the tiny plastic stools used by local eating places in Vietnam, sitting in the steamy darkness drinking fruit-flavoured rice wine and snacking on dried shredded water buffalo.

The first course came at Huong Lien, a bun cha restaurant (bun means noodles, cha is grilled pork) made famous by a visit from Barack Obama in 2016. The multi-storey canteen serves the Hanoi speciality dish bun cha – a broth with grilled pork to which you add cooked noodles and aromatic herbs.


Cooking school chef Mimi leads a Hoi An market tour to buy ingredients including herbs, ginger (Image: NC)

To our delight, the table where Obama slurped noodles with American TV chef Anthony Bourdain is now preserved within a Perspex box. This was our first encounter with the intense freshness of Vietnamese food – and Bourdain. The chef, who died in June, particularly loved Vietnamese cuisine, as we discovered in Hue a few days later.

But for now we were driven through Hanoi’s glamorous French Quarter and past the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum to enjoy noodle rolls of satay beef with lettuce and coriander, shredded grilled duck with fresh basil leaves dipped in soy sauce, and lightly steamed pak choi with banana blossom salad in the final eating house, Vinh Phong.

WE HAD booked our tailor-made holiday with VIVID Travel, speaking to travel designer Eline to work out our included daily guided tours. So there was never any doubt that we would get to our hotels, catch two internal flights and be taken to places including Ha Long Bay, where we spent two days on a ship among the limestone stacks and small islands of this Unesco-listed archipelago.

In Hué, the former imperial capital, we were taken by cyclo – Vietnamese rickshaw – over the Perfume River to the Citadel, where the Imperial City is being restored.

Copied from Beijing’s Forbidden City, these palaces were badly damaged during wars with France, then America but are now rising from the ashes – like the phoenix that decorates the buildings along with dragons and Oriental unicorns.

Related articles

Vietnam flood: Terrifying video shows SAVAGE storm crash into Vietnam

Ultimate itineraries: See the sights with the best escorted tours


Pho noodle soup, Vietnamese traditional food (Image: GETTY IMAGES)


Deborah and family’s street food breakfast at Saigon’s Ho Ma (Image: NC)

Hué is a remarkable city, home to emperors’ tombs such as the final resting place of Vietnam’s penultimate emperor, Khai Dinh, which has dragons running down steep steps and stone statues for bodyguards.

But at the centre of Hué, as in all Vietnamese towns, is the market. Dong Ba market has stalls piled high with red dragon fruit, mangoes, lychees and herbs, while a massive hall features sacks of rice and household goods.

It was here that we stumbled across another Anthony Bourdain favourite, a stall where we bought skewers of barbecued meat and bowls of noodle soup.

The lady in charge was proud of her photo with Bourdain, hung above her steaming pots, but it was at Hoi An that we experienced Vietnam’s culinary culture hands-on.

Signed up for a morning at Red Bridge Cooking School we were taken by chef Mimi to buy herbs, ginger and turmeric then through the meat market past neat piles of pig heads, trotters and legs. “Every part of the animal is used,” we were told, as Mimi gestured towards a tray of innards.

On riverside fish stalls we saw vivid blue crabs and piles of fish landed that morning and being taken to hotels and restaurants.


Unesco-listed Hoi An has lovely 18th-century wooden houses (Image: GETTY IMAGES)

A brightly painted boat took us past rice fields to the school, surrounded by banana trees and bird of paradise flowers. My favourite recipe was for Hoi An pancakes, made from turmeric-laced rice flour batter poured over strips of pork, prawns and bean sprouts.

Hoi An itself is an old trading town with lanterns strung across the streets and Unesco-listed buildings including a Japanese covered bridge and timber houses in ancient Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese styles. It’s a world away from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most people still call it.

Saigon retains more French cultural references than elsewhere, particularly when it comes to food. Saigon baguettes – banh mi – stuffed with grilled pork, bean sprouts and coriander cost less than £2 at Ben Thanh market, perfect for anybody with noodle-fatigue.

And at our VIVID-arranged visit to Henry Cabot Lodge House, the former American Ambassador’s home, we feasted on Mekong Delta king prawn that was like a small lobster, with Vietnamese crème caramel for dessert.


Hué, the former imperial capital, is home to tombs of emperors (Image: NC)

It was a complete contrast to breakfast the next day when our guide, Tre, took us to Saigon’s oldest bread shop, Hoa Ma. Sitting in the road on little plastic stools beside a tiny table we wolfed down fried eggs, Saigon sausage, fried ham and salami presented in the skillets they were cooked in, as traffic honked past us.

Finn was right: noodles and pancakes are all very well but breakfast is the most important meal of the day.


Travel (020 3918 9482/vivid.travel) offers a 12-night Harmony of the Elements tour of Vietnam from £1995 (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Hanoi, two internal flights and guides with drivers. Cities include Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Hué and Ho Chi Minh City.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *