As a Travel Company, we love to share stories from our clients, and this week, our blog post has been contributed by Lena, who recently took a culinary journey with us through Vietnam.
By Lena Siskind. Butterfly and Rose
When we decided to go to Vietnam, we didn’t know much about this country. I had mixed images in my mind – cruel scenes from American war movies like “The Deer Hunter” or “Platoon”, but also the majestic labyrinth of Halong Bay cliffs and stunning rice platforms full of colours and beauty.
In Poland, where I lived for more then 15 years after graduating my studies in Moscow, Vietnamese cuisine wasn’t perceived as something good, rather the opposite – there were many eateries in Warsaw run by the Vietnamese, with low quality and cheap food with the smell of old fried oil one can feel from afar.
But there was kind of feeling in my heart, or maybe my intuition whispering to me that this country is a fascinating wonderland. And when my husband suggested that we go on an Asian trip, for example to China, I was pretty sure that it was Vietnam that should be our holiday destination. And neither me nor my family expected that our trip would be an inspiring adventure to a gourmet’s paradise
After being welcomed at the airport, we were taken by Backyard Travel’s guide to a small village north of Hanoi and the magic started – I found myself in a place where time stopped – you could feel calmness and absolute serenity even in the air.
Sipping the delicious tea from very small bowls, we were enjoying the small talk with the manager and our guide. The refreshing taste with a little bit of herbal sweetness and the bright silver songs of the birds were healing after the long flight and a humid heat. We were accommodated in a traditional Vietnamese house and were invited for the cooking class.
I had quite often seen roses cut from tomatoes on the top of the salads at restaurants and there was nothing unusual in it.
The rose I saw our teacher cut from a small tomato was so weightless and beautiful that I thought that flowers in Vietnam probably had a different dimension.
The challenge wasn’t limited only to the rose; we have to make a butterfly from a cucumber. And then there were the Nem rolls – we were carefully rolling the rice paper stuffed with small slices of pork, vegetables and herbs. And as a next level of the cooking initiation, there were small perilla leaves filled with minced beef, pork and shrimps with a little seasoning.
When we were told that we would have for lunch what we prepared, I was curious and a bit disappointed – I didn’t expect a mind-blowing result of our cooking class.
So while sitting at the table covered by heavy tablecloth in a former temple, we saw local people approaching us with big trays full of food in plates and pots with gorgeous aromas, I understood I was wrong with my expectations and that was a moment when I met the real Vietnamese cuisine the first time and when I was impressed by the variety, freshness and a distinctive flavour, coming from a great combination of the different tastes.
It was the beginning of savouring which made our trip a real paradise for the senses.
The silkiness of the pumpkin soup and the green papaya pancakes, the tenderness of the beef pieces and grilled duck, the power and sauciness of the fish sauce and sweetness of the fish in caramel sauce, the strength and bitterness combined with a sugary sweet of the Vietnamese coffee served with condensed milk – almost everything we tasted was so delicious and I was genuinely surprised by the balance of the various tastes.
Not being a big fan of sophisticated cuisine, where 5 hours of cooking produces just a microscopic spot of a mousse and a mountain of dirty pots and pans, I really enjoy simple, not over-cooked dishes, where I can taste the ingredients and see what they are prepared from. And what I enormously enjoyed in Vietnam was the combination of simplicity, freshness and beauty on our plates at the dinner table.
Like gỏi cuốn – pork, prawn, vegetables and herbs wrapped in rice paper and served fresh with fish or peanut sauce. Or the famous Pho soup which is eaten by the Vietnamese at dawn and dusk.
Beyond doubt, this is a brilliant recipe idea – a broth (usually beef or chicken) with tender rice noodles and a great choice of other ingredients of various tastes – slices of meat, fresh vegetables and herbs.
Green and white onions, bean sprouts, Thai basil and fresh Thai chili peppers, lime, cilantro, culantro and ginger, accompanied by fish or hoisin sauce – a magic interplay with the bitter, sour and sweet tastes for the dynamic start of the day.
We had an absolutely fabulous lunch and dinner on board our Victory Star ship during a fairytail 2-day trip in Halong Bay. How was it possible to prepare and serve such delicious and beautifully decorated food for more then 40 people in a way so I had a feeling that it was cooked and designed just personally for me?!
The chef was simply a genius.
Floating between the islands on calm emerald waters surrounded by beautiful nature was a great pleasure and a real feast for the palate and eyes.
The pumpkin soup was delicately sweet and creamy silky, the sea bass with passion fruit sauce literally was melting in the mouth. And the elegant banana mousse (though called a mango mousse in the menu) was a light but a well-defined final touch of excellence.
In that variety of delicious meals tried during our trip, I had two absolute favourites – prawns served on a pancake filled with vegetables and herbs at the Organic restaurant in the gorgeous Emeralda resort in Ninh Binh – definitely Miss Tenderness among the dishes we tried.
And the glass noodle salad with seafood in Hanoi’s Ngon restaurant– with every little bit was a feeling of changing tastes in my mouth, expressive like opening flowers in a bouquet.
I didn’t try the food street though I really wanted to – I was afraid of stomach problems which could cause possibly put a stop to our sightseeing and savoring and I didn’t want to lose any minute of my trip for health problems.
Thanks to our tailor-made tour and perfect organization of Backyard Travel, we managed to see and taste a lot.
Though for sure the two-week trip was not enough for discovering such a diverse and interesting country as Vietnam. I can say we took a first step in exploring it.
And we will definitely continue it and will start next time with Ho Chi Minh City, where we spent only one day. And even that was enough to fall in love at first sight with its special energy and vibrant life.
Warm thank you Lena for your travel story and the fantastic images. We wish you a further (eating) adventures in Asia!