Kathryn Hudson goes beyond pho on a countrywide food pilgrimage.
Munching beyond the pho cliché in surprising Vietnam.
An image of Vietnam has always drifted through my mind like mist.
A place of contradictions: gentle people scarred by a brutal war; swarming cities surrounded by silent rice paddies; sweet herbs and fiery chilies. When I booked a three-week trip, planning to travel up the coast of the narrow country, I worried that reality would fall short of the dream, that the place I craved to experience would already have
been swept away by Western tourist traps. I needn’t have worried. DAY 1 HO CHI MINH CITY Standing outside the stately opera house in Ho Chi Minh City, fresh from the long journey from Toronto, I am lost in a swarm of motorbikes. The intersection surges like an anthill. The air smells of star anise and fresh-baked bread. The city formerly known as Saigon is hot and fragrant and friendly. My husband, Matt, and I spend our first hours zipping through the crowded streets on the backs of scooters. Driving myself would be suicide. Even as a passenger, my eyes keep squeezing shut as my guide, a friendly young girl, darts over curbs, around dogs and between trucks. Later, we stop and push plastic stools up to a metal table in an alley and eat at an open-air restaurant: chili- and salt-crusted crabs, rich broth with rice noodles, herbs I’ve never seen or tasted before. The locals welcome anyone who eats with a sense of adventure. The servers smile as they drop fresh cubes of ice into our frosty Saigon beers.
The real surprise arrives when we enter Cuc Gach Quan, a popular restaurant in the narrow streets of District 1. I’d come to Vietnam for street food—I was looking for the kind of authenticity that only comes from an old woman bent studiously over a cart—but Brad and Angelina have apparently dined at this converted house, so who am I to argue? We step across an indoor pond, climb up a funky wooden staircase and take a seat at a small table. Soon, it is practically groaning under the weight of slow-roasted pork, water spinach cooked quickly with garlic and squash blossoms, and tender spiced chicken. Filled with spices and happiness, I can barely make it back down the stairs after dinner.
DAY 4 HOI AN The sun is shining in this coastal UNESCO World Heritage site. The picturesque town, filled with brightly coloured buildings and glowing paper lanterns, is also overrun with tailors: Hundreds of dressmaking shops line the streets. We sit down at the local market to indulge in a steaming bowl of cao lau, chewy wheat noodles made by hand with local ash and covered in a rich gravy (a can’t-miss experience), before jumping on a scooter. (We’re feeling bold enough to drive in this smaller town.) We escape the shouts of the dressmakers and head for An Bang Beach. As the surf rolls in, we sip strong iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk and, later, sit down at a beachside table at Tuyet Restaurant to feast on caramelized squid, which is simply too crisp, brown and delicious to be described further. h
DAY 7 HUE The former imperial city is damp and cold. After trekking through the temples and crumbling palaces, we treat ourselves to an appropriate massage: La Résidence Hôtel & Spa’s Imperial Vietnamese Cupping Therapy—a traditional treatment that targets pressure points to loosen tight muscles. I’ve worked up an appetite. Luckily, the region is known for the regal cuisine once demanded by emperors. But we decide on a local working-class specialty: bun bo hue. Famous in the region, it’s a steaming bowl of spicy broth, rice noodles, beef and herbs that fights off the misty chill. Served up by a woman with smiling eyes, it’s worthy of any king.
DAY 9 HALONG BAY This area is touted as one of the natural wonders of the world, but I’m skeptical as I endure the bumpy bus ride from Hanoi to the small northern port. As I step on board The Emeraude, a modern replica of a post-colonial steamship of the same name that now offers overnight tours of the bay, my mood lifts. Cliffs rise from the teal water like apparitions. An artist sitting next to me on the ship deck sketches each island with smudges of charcoal. It’s otherworldly magical. We glide past traditional floating villages and sailing ships. That night, the captain asks if we’d like to fish for squid off the back of the boat. Yes, please.
DAY 12 HANOI A bold statement: All foodies love pho. Vietnam’s signature dish was born in this northern city. Every time I sit down to a bowl in Toronto (often), I fantasize about slurping the real thing here. Now we ramble through the cobblestone streets, which radiate out around Hoan Kiem Lake, and search out the most fragrant flavours. We collect recommendations like cops looking for leads. After days spent looking for the perfect bowl of pho, we have to give up. I smile: The journey, with its scooters and shouting and temples, was more perfect than any one meal could ever be. But that probably won’t stop me from coming back one day and continuing the search. ■