ES­CAPE

Kathryn Hud­son goes be­yond pho on a coun­try­wide food pil­grim­age.

Elle (Canada) - - Front Page - By Kathryn Hud­son

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. ■

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