Archive for the Viet Nam Category

Saigon – on the back of a bike

Posted in Saigon, Viet Nam on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

There are apparently seven million motorbikes and scooters in Saigon, a city with a population of ten million. There’s something quite socialistic about everyone driving scooters instead of cars (though I’m sure if they could afford it more people would) and the traffic would be much worse if people had bigger vehicles.

Visitors go on about how crazy the traffic is in the cities here but I think it’s a lot more organised than somewhere say like India where it’s everyone for themselves, which results in complete chaos more often than not. Instead Vietnamese drivers practice the philosophy of ‘yield and forgive’;  giving way to each other and pedestrians, as you can see from this video where everyone is just getting on with it in an organic unified flow. In India this intersection would be a logjam. Unlike Delhi (where I lived for six months), I didn’t see a single instance of road rage for the whole time I was there. Sure you can hear horns beeping all the time but they’re just saying ‘I’m here, be aware’, as opposed to ‘Get out of my way mofo!’. Every one tootles along at a sedate pace so there’s no need to feel nervous when on a bike or crossing the road.

20130906_213344By far my best experiences in Saigon were the guided food tours I had with Back Of The Bike Tours, a local company owned by Chad and Thuy, an American and Vietnamese couple. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it was one of the best foodie experiences I’ve ever had.

There was no way I could have found or travelled between all the restaurants in different districts that they took me to (fifteen in all) or even know what to ask for when I got there without their help. The only downside was that I was there at the end of the monsoon in early September so during the first tour we all got soaked pretty badly in heavy squalls of rain. It was all part of the experience though and didn’t dampen my spirits one bit. Just make sure you pack a mac for when you go.

As you can see from their website, they have a few choices as to what kind of tour to do. For the first one I opted for the Saigon Street Food Tour. Fredrick (an ex-chef from the US) and Duy (a local student working part time) picked me up from the hotel, put me on Duy’s pillion, and whisked me off to five different restaurants where we tried several different dishes. Of course it wasn’t physically possible to eat everything so we’d just sample the house specialty and then move on to the next place.

Remember you can click on these photos if you want to enlarge them.

20130904_140300The first stop wasn’t scheduled so I don’t know the Vietnamese names for what we ate but it was described to me as fried cubes of rice dough.

20130904_141711I had this with a glass of Pennywort juice, an interesting drink and no doubt very healthy but not something I would seek out.

At the second place some more unknown dishes…



…and  a Bun noodle soup with Pork Sausage. Fred told me he hardly ever eats Pho any more as there are so many more interesting soups to go for. 20130904_142931

Goi Du Du Bo
(Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers, Sauced with Chilli Sauce and Light Fish Sauce.

Banh Canh Ghe
(Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles, Pork Rinds, Fried Fishcake and Green Chilli Sauce)



Banh Xeo (Crispy Rice Flour ‘Crepe’ stuffed with Shrimp, Pork and Bean Sprouts. Served with Fresh Lettuce and Light Fish Sauce.


I also had a Sugarcane Root drink which was really refreshing.

Finally a couple of desserts (sorry but I don’t know the names for these either as again they weren’t on the itinerary). I do know one was a combination of ripe and raw Green Banana with Banana Cake, and and another was with some kind of Noodles and Coconut Milk. Really delicious.


I enjoyed the tour so much that I decided to do the Saigon Chef Tour as well. This time we went to ten restaurants (!) and had more risqué dishes that included offal and more challenging ingredients like snails (though not snake or beetles thank goodness).

This time Chad, the owner of the company,  came with us, as well as Fred and a couple of the guides. Chad was using the tours with me as training exercises for Fred and the newer guides as he and Thuy were going back to the States for a while. There were four staff members and me, so I got great service. Here’s what we had:

Goi Du Du Bo (Julienned Green Papaya Salad topped with Thai Basil, Dried Beef Liver, Toasted Peanuts and Prawn Crackers. Sauced with Chili Sauce and Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_163454Bo Bia (Fresh Rice Paper Rolls Stuffed with Cooked Jicama, Sliced Chinese Sausage, Dried Shrimp and Fresh Lettuce. Served with Hoison Sauce)

20130906_16503520130906_164901Oc Buoi Nhoi Thit (Snails stuffed with Pork, Ear Mushroom, and Lemongrass. Served with Shiso and Ginger Fish Sauce). Shiso (the Japanese name) is amusingly called the ‘smells like fish herb’ here.

20130906_17045920130906_170550Banh Canh Cua (Thick Mud Crab Soup With, Tapioca Noodles, Prawns, Pork Crackling, and Blood Cake)

20130906_182104Chao Long (Pork Offal Porridge, with Blood Sausage, Mungbeans, Bean Sprouts, and Black Pepper)

Banh Beo (Tender Rice Dumplings Topped with Dried Shrimp, and Crispy Pork Skin)

20130906_184301Banh Bot Loc (Hue Style Tapioca Dumpling, Stuffed with Dried Shrimp and Topped with Green Onion and Sweet Fish Sauce)

20130906_184246Banh Nam (Tender Rice dumplings, Topped with Minced Pork, Dried Shrimp and Steamed in a Banana Leaf)

Banh Tom (Crispy Sweet Potato and Prawn Fritters. Served with Bibb Lettuce, Mixed Herbs, Rice noodles and a Light Fish Sauce)

20130906_184447Banh It Ram (Steamed Sticky Rice Flour Dumpling with Crispy Sticky Rice Served with Dried Shrimp and Spring Onion)

20130906_192215Banh Mi Thit (Crispy Bread, Sliced Pork Sausages, Shredded Pork Floss, Fresh Pate, Pickled Carrot and Cucumber)

20130906_19502220130906_194803Bun Mam (Sweet Seafood Soup from the Mekong, with Braised Eggplant and Bitter Vegetables. Served with Fresh Seafood and Roasted Pork)

20130906_203803Ca Ri De (Spicy Goat Curry served with Toasted Bread)

20130906_211338Rau Cau Dua (Young Coconut Jelly)

20130906_211515Dau Hu Ca Cao (Soft Tofu with Coco Powder Syrup, Crushed Ice, and Jellies)

20130906_211156Bi Sua Hot Ga (Vietnamese Pumpkin with Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard)

20130906_211806Sau Rieng Sua (Durian with Milk) and Sinh To Mang Cau (Sour Sop Smoothies)

Chad was a mine of interesting information. In his opinion the Thais do the best desserts and I think a couple of the last sweets were Thai in origin.

You might have noticed also that several of the dishes use the name Banh even when they are quite different e.g. noodles, dumplings, crepes, fritters and baguettes. Chad thought that what unites them is they all employ a flour of some kind.

He also told me that Vietnamese fish sauce is lighter than the Thai version and a bit sweeter. The best stuff comes from Phu Quoc, an island off the south-west coast which is also famous for its powerful black peppercorns. I made sure I stocked up at the market before going home.

So I learned a lot in a very short time, and had some great food as well. I’d like to thank Chad, Fred and all the guides profusely for such a great time. I definitely recommend you hop on the back of one of their bikes if you are in town.


Saigon – Quan 1

Posted in Quan 1, Saigon, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2014 by gannet39

After finishing work in Changsha, I took the opportunity to take a short holiday in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) for a few days. After all the travelling I’d done for work in China I was feeling pretty lazy and didn’t feel the desire to visit any of the local tourist attractions. Given more time I would have liked to have gone to the Mekong Delta but it’s always good to save something for the next time. The only other interesting things might have been the War Remnants Museum (sad and depressing) or the underground passages (claustrophobia inducing) so I preferred to just stuff my face and walk around a lot instead.

The reviews below are the fruits of my labours from my brief stay. FYI, ‘Quan’ means ‘district’ and different guides could use either word in the addresses. Quan 1 is the town centre where most of the action is for visitors. Here’s my Google map of these and many more places I didn’t get time to go to.

Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (Elementary A++), 26 Le Thi Rieng Street, Quan 1 (on the right as you come off the roundabout if I remember correctly)

20130906_191925The best Vietnamese baguette you will ever taste (A++). It was recommended both by local food blog and was also a stop on the food tour I did (see next post).

20130906_192215I was told it contains nine kinds of pork (liver pate and cold cuts) as well as pickles and chillies (god I’m salivating writing this). It’s pricey in comparison to other vendors (28,000 VND or $1.33) but who cares when it’s the best. There was always a short queue on each of the three times I went but you don’t have to wait long thank goodness.

Pho Hoa (Elementary A), 260C Pasteur Street, Quan 1

The most famous and I think oldest place in town for the famous Pho soup (pronounced ‘fur’). I wasn’t expecting much after having read a few criticisms on the web, but I really enjoyed it. The broth was tasty and sweet and everything was as it should be (A). On every table plates piled high with herbs, lime chunks, chillies and Gio Chao Quay, a kind of fried bread originally from China. The interior is quite quirky and atmospheric with walls bearing pictures of pastoral scenes, Buddhist paraphernalia, water bison heads and flintlock rifles. Definitely worth a visit.

Pho Quynh (Elementary B+), on the corner of Rham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau, Quan 1 (in the back packers district)

This place and the food I had were suggested by one of the Back of the Bike guides (see next post). I had the Pho Bo Kho, or as I call it, Irish Stew Pho with chunks of beef and carrots (!). It was ok (B) and an interesting fusion concept, but I think I’d just go for the normal Pho next time.

Pho Ha (Elementary C), 31 Hai Trieu Street, Quan 1

This place was recommended by (usually dependable) but the Xoi Ga (chicken breast) with sticky rice and fried onion (B), was disappointing. Perhaps it’s better when it’s warm, or perhaps they just didn’t like me. The place didn’t feel particularly welcoming.

Grillbar (Intermediate B+), 122 Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh, Quan 1

I got this place off the web somewhere. They serve street food in a modern, sanitised environment but the staff are friendly and the food was good. In fact the Banh Mi baguette with pork meatballs was delicious (A) and they also sold Sapporo Black Label which is my favourite Japanese beer. For dessert I had yogurt with local honey which was very nice (A) so I bought two jars of it to take home.

The Sushi Bar (Intermediate B+), 2 Le Thanh Ton, Quan 1,

Le Thanh Ton street is known as Little Tokyo and is lined with Japanese restaurants. This place is the last one on the street on the left as you’re walking from the centre. I came here seeking a change from all the Chinese and Vietnamese and was pretty satisfied with what I got.

The Edamame (fresh steamed soya beans in their pods) were spot on (A).  The Abogado (avocado) and Sake Maki (salmon rolls) likewise (A) and the Aburi Yari Ika (rare grilled squid) was good (B) while the Hiyayakko (cold tofu) was ok (B-).

I scored the Nigiris as follows for flavour: squid (A), salmon (B+), prawn (B) but they were tiny and a bit flimsy as they were made with local rice rather than the real Japanese sticky rice. Also there was no maguro (tuna) which is my favourite. I think I just arrived a bit too late in the evening.

To drink I had two atsukan ( hot Ozeki Sake) which was good (B) and a beer, all for the equivalent of about £22. It made a nice change.

So not the greatest of restaurant selections, except for the first two which are great, but generally ok. The real food experience comes in the next post.

As for drinks it seems that Bia Hois (pubs that brew their own beer) are more of a Northern thing and so are quite rare in Saigon.

The Rex Hotel has a rooftop bar which is one of Bourdain’s favourite places for ‘novelty cocktails’ as he puts it. There’s a good view and they have live music. An experience but nothing out of this world. The Chill Skybar in the super modern AB Tower, Le Loi, Ben Thanh, has spectacular views but the music and people were pretty horrible. I’ve since heard that The Observatory is a good place to go for more underground music.

Coffee is another French legacy and there seems to be a café on every corner here.

20130906_123427Kita Coffee, 39 Nguyen Hue, Quan 1

This is a nice little spot where you can sit on a balcony and watch the world pass on the street below. I had an iced coffee with condensed milk that was very short and unfiltered (B). Also an orange and passion fruit juice drink with ginger and sugar syrup which was very refreshing (B+).

20130906_143533Ca Phe Nguyen Chat, 93 Nguyen Thong P9, Quan 3,

20130906_143125I heard about this place from a blog about cafes. It’s probably not worth the taxi journey I made but it’s ok if you’re in the area.

20130906_141826They have several rows of display jars with various local coffees, including Chon, akathe infamous weasel coffee.

20130906_142045I bought some to take home but I had to draw a picture of a weasel having a poo in order to explain what I wanted! Although there’s no guarantee that the coffee wasn’t fake, the cafe wasn’t in a tourist area so I don’t think they stung me.

After some enjoyable experiences learning to make Vietnamese food in Hanoi and Hoi An (see separate posts) I thought I’d try one here to:

Mai Home Cooking Class, Saigon Culinary Art Centre, 269B Nguyen Trai,

One of many cooking classes that I found on the net. In this case the guide/chef came and picked me up from the hotel lobby and drove me to the venues. First stop was the Cho Ben Thanh Market (on Le Loi, Ben Thanh) which was an interesting experience. I bought some peppercorns and fish sauce from Phu Quoc island which has a great rep for both.

After this we went to the cooking school/restaurant which was nearby. We were first given a brief talk where we were introduced to the Tsao, or the three cooking gods, who it is believed are present in every kitchen.

Then I was taken upstairs where all the ingredients and utensils were already laid out on a large table. I was shown how to make stock for Pho,  spring rolls, a chicken dish and a fried rice. To be honest this was all a bit too simple for me and I wish I had taken the advanced class instead of the beginners one. It tasted delicious though if I say so myself.

I stayed at the Hotel Continental, 132 Dong Khoi St, Quan 1,

This hotel is the oldest in town (since 1880), and was where the novelist Graeme Greene and more recently Anthony Bourdain have stayed. You can book the Graeme Greene room for an extra price though I don’t know if it’s any different from the others. As it was off season I got a room on promotion for $80. The room was plain but spacious and the outdoor breakfast under an awning in the courtyard was nice. However the ‘gym’ (a tiny antiquated treadmill and an ageing weights station) and the overpriced Restaurant Bourgeois (French cuisine) left me cold.

Artbook, 158ED Dong Khoi, Quan 1

Dong Khoi is the main shopping street. There was nothing I wanted to buy on it but I liked the small bookshop at the river end of the street, where I picked up a couple of books on Vietnamese cooking.

A word on visas; you can arrive without one (I had to as I didn’t have time to send it to the embassy before going to China), but it will cost you in terms of money, time and hassle. I had to fork out $160, about £100, for a ‘landing visa’, which hadn’t been the case on my previous visit to Hanoi the year before, but heigh ho.

The money can be a bit confusing for people not used to having so many zeros on their bank notes. It’s worth having a little look up table with you so that you don’t get ripped off, as one of my buddies did. When I was here in 2013 the approximate note values were: 100,000 = £3, 50,000 = £1.50,  20,000 = 60p, 10,000 = 30p.

I will be adding more images to this post at a later date. Make sure you check out my next post for the food pics!

Hoi An Highlights

Posted in Hoi An, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by gannet39

Hoi An is a pretty little port town on the river about 30 mins from Danang, the third largest city in VN.

With a population of 90,000 it had just 4000 visitors in 1994 but by 2008 over 500,000 tourists stayed for one night or more and another million came just for the day, which gives you an idea of the way things are going, and it’s set to increase even more.

Streets of Hoi An 015

Beside the river

It’s still worth going to see its UNESCO world heritage architecture (ancient houses with Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences) and…

Chinese temple





Japanese bridge…because it has a reputation for good food, though opinion is divided on whether it’s any better than elsewhere in the country. One of my culinary heroes, the American chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, has set up home nearby so it must have something going for it. Personally I ate well most if not all the time. The highlights for me were the fantastic market and the cooking class I went to.

Cao Lau noodlesNoodles drying
Famous local dishes include Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Rose rice dumplings) which were brought to Hoi An by a Chinese family and the best ones are still made by their descendants.

After these perhaps the most famous dish is Cao Lau (a dish of long rectangular Cao Lau noodles served with deep fried croutons made of the same dough, slices of roast pork, herbs and a little watery sauce. Apparently it has Chinese, Japanese and French influences; however the water for the stock sauce must come from a particular local well for it to be authentic Cao Lau.

More Cao Lau 002

Cao Lau cooking station
Cao Lau noodlesCao Lao condimentsI ate this three times and found the best (B+), and worst (C-), to be from the small stalls around the sides of the market (very cheap places to eat by the way and probably more satisfying than most restaurants).

Other local specialities include Mi Quang (Quang Nam noodles with vegetables and pork), Bun Gao Phuc Kien (Fujien Chinese fried noodles), Hoanh Thanh Quang Dong (Cantnonese wontons), Bahn Trang Dap Cam Nam Cam Nam wet rice paper ‘sandwiches’) and Banh Xeo Ba Le (fried rice pancakes) although I could only find and try the last of these.

Market buffet

Cua Dai Hotel (Intermediate B), 544 Duong Cua Dai St, Tel: (84) 510 386 2231 or 4604 Email: info@ Website:

A friendly boutique style hotel with a small pool and comfortable rooms with wi-fi, A/C and ceiling fans. It’s well placed between the centre of town (20 mins walk) and the beach (40 mins). I got a room in November for $34 a night.  It’s owned by the famous restaurateur Ms Vy (pronounced ‘Vee’) who owns four restaurants in town, including a patisserie and a cooking school.  Info for all her places is on the website which has a handy map of the town too.

The hotel didn’t have its own kitchen at the time of writing so food was delivered from the excellent Mermaid Cafe below. The breakfast is ok with the highlight being the excellent Pho (A)…

Cua Dai breakfast pho

…and the Hoi An Banh Cuon, a steamed rice flour crepe filled with vegetables and herbs (B+),

Banh Cuon

If the Cua Dai is full you could try the slightly cheaper and the apparently very friendly Hai Au Hotel just up  the road at 576 Cau Dai St which gets very favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. Their number is 510 391 4577

The Mermaid Cafe (Elementary B+), 2 Tran Phu St, Tel: 386 1527 opposite the cloth market entrance, near the food market.

Although a plain and simple place, the Mermaid is probably the best and most famous sit-down restaurant in town, due to being featured in many guides and other media, and I think I would agree with the accolades. My first takeaway lunch was wonderful; White Rose Dumplings (Banh Bao and Banh Vat) a local speciality which in this case featured two different shapes of dumplings, a small flower shaped one and a second larger half moon variety, both filled with ground shrimp and vegetables and topped with caramelised dried fried shallots (B+).

White Rose Dumplings

Also Banana Flower and Chicken Salad (Goi Hoa Chuoi Ga Hoach Tom) shredded chicken, carrot, banana flower and white noodles with mint, caramelised shallots and roasted peanuts (B+).

Banana Flower and Chicken Salad

Also another dish erroneously or seasonally described in the menu as Stir Fried Green Mustards with Mushroom (Cai Xanh Xao Nam) but which I would describe as pak choi with shitake, garlic and ginger in oyster sauce (A), perhaps my favourite dish that I had in VN.

Pak Choi and Shitake with Oyster Sauce

Just to make sure (totally in pig mode here) I had Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice (Com Ga Hoi An) which involved shredded chicken, carrot, kohlrabi or turnip with mint and turmeric tinted rice (B) .

Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice

However I didn’t think much of the rice papads which were cold, bland and tasteless (C). All this was washed down with the first of many bottles of Biere Larue, the half decent local beer (B).

Biere Larue

On another day when I came for lunch I had another famous local delicacy Fried Wonton (Hoanh Thanh Chien) a deep-fried wonton containing crab meat and topped with tomato and onion, which was delicious (A).

Fried Wonton

Also Spicy Noodle Soup (Sup Mi Hai San) squid, shrimp, white tuna, thin white noodles, the chopped stalk of a lotus-like plant called Bac Ha, tomato, okra and topped with pineapple, coriander and minced garlic and chilli; sheer bliss (A).

Sup Mi Hai San
A few evenings later I had Ca Thu Nurong Nghe or Grilled Mackerel with Fresh Turmeric in the menu, which was chunks of fish formed into a square cake with short glass noodles, minced red pepper, shitake, garlic and spring onion which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. It was pretty good but not worth all the effort it would take to make I’d say (B-).

Grilled mackerel in banana leaf

The Garlic Fried Rice, Com Chien Foi, was pretty ordinary (C) but my favourite Pak Choi dish saved the day. (Cooking note: cut the thick end of the stem in the middle so it lies flatter in the pan).
On my last day I was forced to have another takeaway as the non-stop rain kept me in the hotel. Sadly it was rather disappointing, with another poor Vegetable Rice and mediocre Spare Ribs (both C) but perhaps the latter could have been better if they’d been hot when they arrived. The Mermaid Spring Rolls were ok though (B).

Mermaid spring rolls

Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant
(Intermediate B) and Morning Glory Cooking School (Intermediate A), 106 Nuguyen Thai Hoc St, Tel: (0510) 2241 555 or 556, Email:

Mermaid Restaurant 037

Pancake ingredients

I came here to eat first, little knowing that I would be learning to make some of my choices the next day. To start I had Banh Uot Thit Nuong (much larger pancakes than the diddy Xeo Cakes I had in Hanoi, and here flavoured with turmeric and wrapped with a sheet of rice paper) which were ok (B-) but rather stingy on most ingredients (a solitary shrimp and not many herbs or slices of pork, star fruit and green banana) but too many bean sprouts. The ones I made in class the next day were much better! Also I wasn’t keen on the satay sauce on the side and found them to be much better with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.

Pancake ready to roll

I also had Cao Lau here which I found to be pretty flavourless (C) and is better from the street stalls.

Cao Lau

The cooking classes however were much better. I was apprehensive at first as there were about twenty people waiting for the class in the morning. Thankfully we were divided up into groups of five and each assigned a guide for the morning tour. Our guide Trang spoke good English and was very knowledgeable.


I learned lots of handy tips like the more unattractive a mango looks (the black speckles) the better it will taste and also that custard fruit are squeezy like a sponge when they are ready to eat.

Mangoes taste better the worse they look

She showed us fresh turmeric, ginger and galangal and several kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Turmeric, Galangal and Ginger

Herb stall
Morning GloryI forget


Dried fishPicklesDragon FruitOne dead chickenBanana flowers shredded and wholeWho knowsScallopsPlums that are more like applesA gaggleSquid and fishNoodle stallDunno

We also found out there are two kinds of shallots (forget which is which) and two kinds of garlic (local small powerful ones for cooking and larger Chinese ones like the kind we get in the UK for eating raw in dipping sauce). There is an even smaller garlic chive bulb but this is only used for medicinal purposes as it’s too strong to eat.

Two kinds each of shallots and garlic

Also, when buying fish sauce, look at the colour which should be transparent and the same from top to bottom in the bottle, indicating a first pressing rather than a second or third. The taste should also change in your mouth rather than remaining the same. Finally she showed us several kinds of herbs, including peppermint, purple mint, aniseed basil and morning glory although there were many more on sale. Apparently Vietnamese people will first see what herbs are available before deciding what dishes they will cook.

I’d advise walking around the market once before you do the tour so you have more quality time with your guide. Trang got slightly impatient with us as we held up the schedule with impromptu stops for shopping and photography.

Back at the cooking school (upstairs from the restaurant) I was very impressed by the set up. Three rows of desks with their own built in burners, facing a teachers table with a long mirror overhead, which when angled correctly meant everyone could see what she was doing.

Student's desk

Van our teacher




Morning Glory Cooking ClassIngredientsOur teacher, Van, was again very experienced and knowledgeable and repeated everything twice, everything twice, so no one missed a thing, missed a thing.

We made Fresh Summer Rolls, Green Papaya Salad, Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaf and the aforementioned Banh Uot Thit Nuong pancakes, all of which were delicious (A).

Summer roll ready to rollFresh rollPapaya salad ingedientsPapaya salad and grilled chicken
Besides a recipe booklet you also get a complimentary Vietnamese vegetable grater, although mine was confiscated at the airport in case I tried to grate the pilot. There was only one course available when I was in town in November but I think they run as many as six different classes in the high season, from beginner right up to professional chef level.

Compared to the class I went to in Hanoi, both the market tour and the class were considerably more in-depth and I learnt a lot more. On the other hand the Hanoi class taught us how to make dishes that were much more achievable in the European kitchen due to the simpler nature of the recipes and the shorter list of ingredients, some of which would be hard to find at home. Both were worth doing.


The Lighthouse Cafe (Intermediate B), 5 Khoi Xuyen Trung, Tel: 393 6235, As you cross over the bridge at the end of Hoang Dieu St, take the second or third right and follow the blue signs.

 Intent on escaping the clutches of Ms Vy and her not-so-evil empire, I decided to try this place out on the other side of the river which is run by a Dutch and Vietnamese husband and wife team. It’s a lovely spot, next to the river, and has lovely views over the water to the main town. There is only one comfortable table on the veranda however and I was squeezed into a narrow gap on the side veranda with a half table attached to the handrail. The space was so limited that my large cane chair could not be moved and I had to sit at a forty five degree angle to the table. No matter, it’s all about the food. I had White Rose dumplings again to compare them to elsewhere and found them quite chewy, a sign perhaps that they had been steamed a fair while before.

Lighthouse white rose dumlings

For the main I had Rau Muong Xao Bo, Fried Beef and Water Spinach, which had been cooked with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce, always a winner as far as I’m concerned and the beef was quite tender for VN (B+).

Fried Beef and Water Spinach

With a bowl of rice and a Saigon beer the bill came to a reasonable 120,000 dong.

Saigon beer with a view

This is a lovely and great for a romantic meal if you can bag the best table, or if you are in a group you could get more choices off the rather limited menu (only 3 or 4 choices for each category) . For the single diner there are probably better places, and better food.

Cafe 43 (Elementary B), 43 Tran Cao Van, go over the crossroads with Thai Phien and follow the road round to the left, it’s on the right after about 300 hundred yards.

Thought I should try this place given its number one status on Trip Advisor. It was packed out (50 seats) with noisy groups of tourists, although they found a table for me.

Cafe 43

I had the White Rose dumplings once more which were quite tasty but not very well made (B-). I also had the Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass (also onion and sesame seeds) which was pretty good if a bit oily (B-).

Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass

They make their own beer which a lot of people seem to really like but my glass was quite flat and I could only score it a C, the last of the batch maybe. The waiting staff had a few language confusions (beer=coke, rum & coke=rum & lemon) but were very smiley and nothing was a problem. Then again I’d smile a lot if I was raking it in.

They also seem to have their own in-house hawker who was annoyingly persistent. Felt a bit sorry for the empty place over the street with just a lone couple for customers but at least there’s somewhere to escape to if you fancy a quieter meal. The total bill with rice and drinks came to a dirt cheap 95,000 dong. This is an inexpensive place with no pretensions and good hearty food, a good choice if you are on a budget.

The Mango Rooms (Advanced B), 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 3910 839

Raved about by lots of reviewers and guides, the food in this fusion place is undoubtedly good, but I can’t get past the fact it’s basically the same ingredients reassembled in a different way but three times more expensive.

Mango Rooms inside

I had a great mango lassi (A) which is hard get wrong and the ‘Tropical Lush’ which was seared tuna on a bed of lettuce, herbs, slices of tomato, orange, small cubes of watermelon and a ginger soy dressing with caramelised shallots, which was pretty good (B).

Seared Tuna

Total cost $10 which might explain why this place is empty most times I go past. The food is beautifully presented and like the Caribbean-style decor is vibrant and warm. The only reason I’d eat here again though is if I was totally bored with the local food, and I’ve got a long way to go till that happens. The menu is quoted in dollars, in itself a bit suspect to my mind, with main courses between $11 and $19, i.e. 220.000 to 380,000 dong; you’re looking at 600,000 plus with starters and drinks. It’s good, but not that good, hence the B. They have a sister restaurant called Mango Mango over the river.

Mango Room

Cargo (Intermediate B), 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 391 1227, just over the road from the Morning Glory Restaurant, next door to the Mango Rooms.
Another of Ms Vy’s establishments, this is a patisserie located in an attractive old villa. My classmates told me the cakes and coffee are very good here but rain stopped me from trying them out on my last day.


Instead I came here for dessert one evening to try the recommended Lemon Grass Ice Cream which was delightful (A) although the scoops of Cinnamon (B) and Caramel (C) it came with were less so.

Lemon grass icecream

Son (Intermediate B), at Cam Chau on the continuation of Cau Dai St, about halfway to the beach on the right, Tel: 0510 3861 1172 or 0989 501 400

This is a funky little place built on stilts over the river. I also decided to try it because it’s supposedly a member of the International Slow Food Association with the implication of authentic good food, although I couldn’t find any Viet Nam members on the website. It’s a nice spot to sit and watch life in and on the river go by.

River view

There were hordes of bizarre long snouted fish, with eyes halfway down their bodies wiggling around on the surface below my table. The soundtrack to this was the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen who I always find very relaxing. The restaurant is staffed by a group of tiny waitresses dressed in what look like kung fu suits who practised their kicks and punches on each other and the middle-aged owner in between efficiently and politely serving the handful of customers.

I had the Chicken Curry which included potato, carrot, shitake mushrooms, baby sweet corn (not sure if this is particularly authentic) flavoured with lemon grass, celery leaves, coriander and spring onion, which was ok but could have done with more heat and less celery (C).

Chicken curry

This came to a moderately expensive 130,000 dong with two beers and I was about to leave it at that when the heavens opened, so I came back for a poor Mojito (mint turned to mush, too much soda) but an excellent Mango Pancake with Chocolate Sauce, the best dessert I’d had so far in Viet Nam (A). Perhaps my choices could have been better but I would still come back here for the ambience and the desserts, hence the B.

Mango crepe

So does Hoi An live up to the hype? It’s a nice place, definitely worth visiting but probably not for more than three nights unless you want to hit the beach. As far as it’s culinary reputation goes, there is good food to be had, as you can see in the fantastic market, but you have to search out the best stuff and that could take time when there are is so much choice. Hopefully this brief survey of the places with a name will help you decide. If you do anything here though make it the cooking class, you won’t regret it.

Dogs on different diets

Oi Oi Hanoi

Posted in Hanoi, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by gannet39

In Hanoi everyone seems to be on a scooter going somewhere, or sitting by the side of the road eating. Food is everywhere and it’s all delicious. My breakfast every day was a bowl of the famous Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) noodle soup, the national dish of Viet Nam. Although it displays influences from China (the noodles) and France (the beef) Hanoians claim it to be their invention, however this is disputed by people in nearby Nam Dinh. Pho may seem very simple but it’s all about the quality of the stock, which takes a lot of skill and time to make. It comes in two forms; Pho Bo (beef) or Pho Ga (chicken) and is served with a dish of lime and chopped red chilli with the seeds still in on the side. I’d say the chilli is pretty essential to bring the full flavours out, but is I guess optional for those who aren’t keen on the heat. Pho and noodle stalls are everywhere and while not as clean as sit-down restaurants, more often than not they have the best food, as well as being incredibly cheap. Anywhere busy must be pretty good but these really two impressed me.

roast beefstock pansGia Thuyen PhoGia Thuyen Pho (Elementary A), 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem. No phone. Open 6-11am and 6-11pm Located in a shopfront in the old quarter, this place only serves one thing and has been packed out with a loyal clientele for decades. With a rubbish-strewn floor and the big basket of misshapen chopsticks steaming on the pavement, hygiene standards are low but once you taste the stock you will forgive them anything. The bouillon is beautifully sweet with generous amounts of tender roasted beef and greens piled high. Very simple but incredibly tasty.

chefnoodles at the readyBun Bo Nan BoBun Bo Nam Bo (Elementary A), 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 3923 0701. Open 7am to 10.30pm. Another one-dish place so it’s easy to order, just hold up however many fingers for the number you want. Your bowl will contain a handful of white bun noodles with lettuce, carrot, kohlrabi sweet turnip, peanuts and a tiny bit of sauce which you toss together. Again it’s all about the stock which brings out the taste of the other ingredients.

The above two places are very near each other so I went on a noodle crawl, interspersed with stops at a bia hoi, the Vietnamese version of a pub except it’s outside on the street. These places make their own fresh beer which is usually very good.

Boys at the pub





Fresh beerHua Sua Training Restaurant (Intermediate A), 28A Ha Hoi, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3942 4448

Thoroughly enjoyed this place and think everyone would come for several reasons. Not only does it serve good food at reasonable prices in a very pleasant environment (an old French villa), it also functions as a training school for disadvantaged kids who will go on to get work in the catering industry when they graduate. It was set up in 1994 by a group of retired teachers and since then they have trained over 5000 students for placements all over the country.

I arrived to a lovely welcoming smile from the young greeter on the door and was given a choice of sitting outside in the courtyard or upstairs on the floor overlooking it. The spot they showed me was a good compromise, a solitary table on a small balcony, neighbouring a larger upstairs dining room that allowed me to take flash photos of the food without disturbing the other guests. It was nicely private but at the same time made me privy to all the arguments and accidents in the kitchen as the sounds rose up the stairwell. The two young guys who waited on me, one of whom spoke some English, gave me the kind of service you would expect from a posh European restaurant, albeit it with beginners’ nerves. The breadth of the curriculum was revealed in the menu which covered traditional Vietnamese and classic European, particularly French, dishes as well as more modern fusion concepts.

Nice little comboWhile sipping on a blissful Sinh To Xoai (mango juice), my eye was first attracted to the starter of Bunoc Tay Ho (Rice Vermicelli and Snail Soup with Herbs) but then I flipped the page and came across the Com Viet Nam, or Traditional Vietnamese Combination Meal as the translation in the trilingual menu (French/English/Vietnamese) would have it. Vang DalatThis involved several dishes on a tray including; Fried Spring Rolls with Crab with nouc mam cham dipping sauce and pickled giant radish and carrot on the side. Also “Sautéed Vegetables” which on this occasion turned out to be baby pak choi with smashed garlic, a particular favourite of mine), “Broth” which was a lovely delicate chicken stock with lumps of meat and tender chopped baby pak choi leaves, and Stewed Pork in Caramel Sauce which was a fatty and delicious contrast to the simplicity of my perfectly steamed rice (all A). All of this for less than £4 so I decided to splash out on a bottle of the local Vietnamese red ‘Vang do Da Lat’ not expecting much but was stunned by an excellent, nearly full bodied red with red berry tones and good legs (B+).

Banana frittersFinally the set included Banana Fritters and Honey which were nice (B) and well turned out but were ultimately unsatisfying. And that is my only criticism, I still felt hungry after the meal, but maybe that’s my problem rather than theirs as it was pitched just right to feed a normal healthy appetite. Still, faced with half a bottle of wine and no cheese on the menu except the Mousse au Fromage, I decided to order the Chuoi Hap Dira Kieu Thai or Thai Style Steamed Banana with Coconut which, was healthily pleasant and came with sweet coconut milk and grated coconut and peanuts on top. Cointreau FrappeTo test their French credentials I ordered a Cointreau ‘Frappe’ to finish the night off with and was rewarded with a perfectly chilled digestif with crushed ice and garnished with slices of green orange (for less than £2 I might add). This place is purely for tourists but the food is great and you know all the money you spend is going to a good place. I spent 500,000 Dong, with a tip, which is about £18. I think everyone should come here at least once during their stay in Hanoi. I’ll certainly be back.

They also run these places:

Cafe Smile 3 Van Mieu St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 38 43 88 50

Baguette & Chocolate Sapa, Tha Bac St, Sapa, Lao Cai, Tel: (0)20 387 17 66

Baguette & Chocolate Hanoi at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Nguyen Van Huyen St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 22 43 11 16

Cha Ca Anh VuMaking Cha CaThe finished productCha Ca Anh Vu (Elementary A), #116, Block K1, Giang Vo (near the Horizon Hotel which is at the Giang Vo and Cat Linh crossroads). Tel: 04 3512 1279

Cha Ca is another famous Hanoian dish which consists of grilled fresh water fish (most usually the infamous snakehead fish) that has been marinated in turmeric, grated galangal, fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, stock, black pepper and shrimp paste. The fish is grilled before it arrives at the table but is heated up in a frying pan with peanut oil on a burner (preferably charcoal) with large handfuls of chopped dill and spring onions. Several other dishes hold white Bun noodles, shredded scallion, mint and coriander, peanuts, fresh red chilli and a bowl of fish sauce and shrimp paste based liquid to add moisture. When the fish is hot and the herbs have wilted, everything is assembled in one bowl according to your personal taste. The waiters here will keep topping up your noodles and other accompaniments till you have finished everything in the pan. I was charged 100,000 dong for the food and 20,000 each for two beers, about £5 in all.

Cha Ca StreetCha Ca La VongAbout twenty minutes in a taxi from the centre, this is a good clean place where mainly Vietnamese people go. There are other Cha Ca places very nearby; in fact this looks like quite an interesting little strip with several other neighbouring restaurants selling regional cuisines. Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca St is the most historically famous place to try Cha Ca and is mentioned in a lot of guides, and although more atmospheric it’s apparently more crowded and expensive and they push extras on you like the ‘special essence of beetle’. I really wanted to go and try it but didn’t have time.

Old Hanoi Restaurant (Advanced B), 4 Ton That Thiep, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Tel: 04 3747 8337

Old Hanoi

Apparently the best place in town according to themselves and many reviewers; it was recently opened in July 2010 (so not old at all) by a certain Mr Ramsay as part of his forthcoming TV series, to be screened in March 2011. Located in an old French villa (hence it’s name), this is definitely a nice place, a small oasis away from the non-stop traffic at the end of the road. The decor is pleasant but nothing special; red walls with display cases of ancient cultural artefacts as well as black and white photos of Hanoi’s past.


The waitresses, wearing traditional Do Dai dresses, are efficient and friendly. There are apparently performances of traditional dance and music, but not on the quiet week night I went.

Xeo cakesXeo cakeRamsay's RibsSeafood riceThe menu apparently represents all the Vietnamese regions, North, Central and South but I was after the local fare. To start I had Hanoi Sizzling Xeo Cakes with Shrimp; tiny crepes with a whole prawn, a small piece of pork and shredded green onion, absolutely delicious (A). To pre-empt their coming appearance on TV, I went for the Suon Lon Nuong Ngu vi aka Ramsay’s Ribs; four spare ribs marinated in five spices. They were pretty fucking good as Rammo would say but I’ve had better (B+). On the side Com Chien Hai San or fried rice with seafood (prawns) and also carrot, corn, peas and egg (B).

Nep MoiSadly dessert choices were rather lacking, as is the case at many restaurants here, and I had to settle for the ubiquitous Chut Dot or Banana On Fire, (fruit flambéed with Bacardi, but the accompanying Fanny’s Rum & Raisin ice cream was great, (Fanny’s apparently make the best ice cream in town and have a shop on the west side of Hoan Kiem lake). For a digestive I was given a triple shot of Nep Moi aka Hanoi Vodka which sent me home in a merry mood. Total cost 572,000 with a couple of beers and a 10% service charge i.e. about £20, much cheaper and better food than other high-end places according to many reviewers.

The spreadMs Hoa and meOld Hanoi also runs cooking classes and I grabbed the chance to learn how to cook a lot of the things I’d been eating in other restaurants. The class is run by the lovely Ms Hoa who, although not a professional chef herself, speaks English well enough to guide you through. The class costs $35 or 735,000 Dong for about 3 hours, from 9.30 to 12.30.

Curd stallBitter melonPigeons, best thing for 'emTaro leavesSnake headsHerb stallCondimentsDry noodlesCourgettesBean curdsHoa took us first to a small nearby market to buy fresh ingredients and answer questions about all the food on offer there before taking us back to the restaurant to cook it under the ancient fig tree in the villa courtyard.There are two class options. I chose option one which taught you how to make the following;

Nem Ran fillingFat ones, thin ones...Nem Ran Hanoi rolls 067

Nem Ran Hanoi or Hanoi-style Fried Rolls made with minced pork, spring onions, sweet turnip, carrots, shallots, bean sprouts, two kinds of mushrooms, glass noodles, egg yolk and wrapped in slightly thicker rice paper and eaten with sprigs of peppermint, purple mint and coriander.


Marinade ingredientsMarinaded snake head fishBig fanFresh Rolls with Ca Nuong

Fresh Rolls with Ca Nuong grilled fish (very similar to Cha Ca but fried with chilli and roasted peanuts, dry fried shallots and wrapped in thin rice paper rolls with Bun noodles, spring onion, cucumber, pineapple, carrot, red pepper, chilli, bean sprouts and lettuce).

Nice rice

Nuoc Mam Cham dipping sauceNuoc Mam Cham dipping sauce with chilli and raw garlic in water, rice vinegar, fish sauce and lime juice.

Com Tom Cung Dinh or ‘Royal’ Fried Rice with Shrimps with sweet corn, baby button mushrooms, peppers, carrots, onions and peas.

Che Khoai Lang GungChe Khoai Lang Gung, a simple pudding made by simmering sweet potato and ginger with corn flour and sugar.

Best with beerBoth kinds of rolls were excellent (A), especially with a few cold beers, but the fried rice used too much oil for my taste (C) and the pud was far too healthy to truly satisfy (B-). All the dishes are easy to make once you know how (you get a recipe booklet to take home with you) and I managed to satisfactorily recreate the Ca Nuong back in the UK, although I couldn’t have done it without my local Thai supermarket which had Vietnamese rice paper ,noodles and shrimp paste as well as fresh galangal and turmeric.

Essential ingredientsHowever I had to use stock granules and fish sauce that I brought back with me, although I guess Thai fish sauce can’t be much different. A good substitute for snakehead fish is monkfish which has a similar texture.

The moneychangers on Ha Trung St, near the Old Hanoi restaurant, will give you the best rates on town.

Anh TuyetAnh Tuyet (Advanced B+) 22 and 25Ma May, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 6291 1039 and 3825 8705. Website:, Email: (This place is located in a traditional Hanoi home so you have to go down the passage at the side and up the stairs at the back to the restaurant on the second floor).

On my last night I decided to treat myself with the last of my dong at this high-end place and it was the most expensive meal I had during the trip (700,000 dong, about £25). You’d do well to reserve as it was very busy with a mainly French clientele when I was there, although they do have another annex just across the street. The restaurant and its owner, Madame Tuyet are championed by my culinary hero Anthony Bourdain in  his TV series ‘A Cooks Tour’.

Roast chickenThe dish she cooks for him in the show, for which she also won the Vietnamese Best Food award in 2002 is her Roast Chicken Anh Tuyet (Ga Quay At), also the most expensive item on the menu at 195, 000 dong, although most dishes are in six figures. And it’s certainly worth the money; full flavoured meat and delectable crispy skin brushed with a mix of brown sugar and wild honey that you just want to eat forever (A+). This came with a dip sauce of lemon juiced, salt, pepper and chilli which further accentuated the flavours although it would taste fine without it.

Egg and Crab Spring RollTo follow I had what should have been the starter; Egg and Crab Spring Roll Anh Tuyet (Nem Trung Cua At ), also a signature dish bearing her name but which for me was inexplicably tasteless, although very well made (C+).

Gio Luoi TaiI also went for the traditional Hanoian dish of Gio Luoi Tai (an aspic jelly containing pork, pig’s ear and tongue) which wasn’t on the English menu but which I was curious to try. This was served cold with pickled pak choi and large spring onions on the side. All in all a rather crunchy dish to eat (cartilage and onions) but with good flavour (B). I had it with Xoi Trang (steamed sticky white rice, as opposed to Com Trang which I presume is long grain) which was cooked perfectly. With the food I had another bottle of Dalat Red wine which I later regretted as the mark up was so high it was nearly half the bill! It was also more than was stated on the aging and often changed menu, but I didn’t say anything. I also tried a glass of Ruou Trang, described as white wine on the menu but actually the local fire water, which was very good and not at all rough.

There was no sign of the great lady herself but her staff were all wonderful, especially her niece Thuy who was very apologetic for the small hiccups in service. She told me the restaurant also runs cooking classes which if I’d known about before I would have gone to. You can find out more via their website or email above. As far as the restuarant is concerned I thought the food was great although I did feel  I was paying a lot for it, so I think I would probably look elsewhere for better value in the future.

The streets around Ma May are packed with eateries, bars and bia hois. This area seems to be backpacker central, as well as catering to lots of young Vietnamese, so if you’re looking for some fun in the evenings, around here would be a good choice.

Simple things in lifeGrinding machineCafe Mai storefrontLots to choose fromCool beansParis Mai is top of the range






Cafe Mai, 79 Le Van Huu St

The coffee is very good in Viet Nam and this traditional shop is one of the best. It has two units facing each other across the street. The one at #79 is a sit down cafe where you can enjoy a cup of filtered coffee served with another small cup of incredibly sweet condensed milk. Over the road you can buy freshly ground coffee to take away (an essential item for the homeward suitcase). They have quite a range. The Trung Nguyen cafe chain are also very good.

In VN ou may hear the legend of ‘weasel coffee’, where an animal called a civet cat is fed the ripe coffee berries and the beans are roasted once they have passed through its digestive tract. Some believe this to be a fable and it’s true that there are a lot of fakes out there but given the number of articles about it at the bottom of this Wikipedia page, I tend towards believing it. Here also is a discussion about it on the New Hanoian website which is also useful for locating other good cafes and eateries.

Army Guest House (Intermediate B), 33C Pham Ngu Lao St, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3826 2896 Email:

This is a basic but clean and fairly cheap place not far from the Old Quarter. As I hadn’t reserved till I arrived at the airport they only had ‘deluxe’ rooms left so I paid slightly over the odds, $60 a night and a half day for $35. The rooms have a TV, a desk and a balcony and not much else, although there are apparently a variety of suites. Breakfast is basic but all I needed each morning was fruit, pho and a cup of tea which were all fine. I stayed here mainly because it has a twenty five meter pool (unheard of in this price range) which would be great in the summer but was a bit chilly in November when I went. Some of the battleaxes on reception will try to ignore you at first but eventually came through on all my requests when I disarmed them by being super nice (my usually quite effective tactic for disarming grumpy people!). The hotel is well served by the taxi rank outside the Hilton just around the corner.

Taxis are dirt cheap and it will only cost two or three quid to get most places. Motorbike taxis are faster and cheaper but personally I prefer to be out of the pollution. The traffic in Hanoi travels at a fairly sedate average speed of 40 kmh, so there’s little chance of a serious accident, though rush hour can get a bit hairy. As a pedestrian the traffic will avoid you when you’re crossing over the road, unlike in China where they will try to mow you down. Edge your way slowly over and never run and you will be ok. I didn’t see a single example of road rage the whole time I was there.

From Hanoi I caught the overnight Reunification Express to Danang, an experience worth having just the once. Lower bunks cost slightly more than upper ones but you get a better view, especially nice between Hue and Danang when the train line follows the coast (a bit murky in November though). The food is pretty bad apparently so load up on baguettes and fruit before you get on. Once on the train is probably enough and catching a return domestic flight only costs the equivalent of a bout £40. If at all possible though, avoid using Jetstar who are notorious for rescheduling flights (mine was delayed by 5 hours) or at least call the airport to check before you leave.

NATIC (Noibai Airport Tourism Information Center) Tel: +84-4 3584 4476. Email: Website:

When you come through the arrivals exit at Hanoi airport, you will see a tourist information booth over to your right. Be warned that these booths are private concerns rather than offices for free advice however they will safely book hotels and buy tickets for you if you haven’t already done so. I found them to be friendly and efficient although they are obviously on commission and will try the hard sell for places they think you should go.

A couple of useful websites for food and restaurant tips are:

An interesting book is ‘Vietnamese Food‘ written by Bobby Chinn, a Vietnamese American, and with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.

Hanoi is a fascinating city and in four nights I only scratched the surface. Can’t wait to go back.

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