This post could equally well be titled Hello Halong!, or Hello Hoi An! or Hello Hue! – the point being that we have now left Indonesia behind us and moved onto the wonderful country that is Vietnam, which also seems to have a strange propensity for cities beginning with the letter H. The change of country came just at the right time – although I would have liked a little more time in Bali to discover the interior of the island and an extra week to visit Flores and the Komodo dragons, I was certainly ready for a change from the ubiquitous cuisine of nasi goreng and mie goreng (fried rice/noodle), the expensiveness of all alcoholic beverages and the frustrating lack of transport options for much of the archipelago.
Vietnam is possibly my favourite country of all the ones I’ve visited so far. This is in no small part down to the cuisine which just tastes a lot fresher than the majority of what I ate in China, Malaysia and Indonesia. There’s no thick stews or curries, less greasy fried dishes, and a much greater use of fresh herbs – almost every dish comes topped with a thick bunch of chopped greenery of some description, often including mint and coriander, which really lifts up the rest of the dish. Favourite dishes so far have included:
- Fresh spring rolls. Unlike their fried cousins, these rolls are not dripping with grease, but are eaten cold, made of rice paper filled with thin rice noodles, prawn and pork, and a good clump of fresh herbs.
- Banh Mi. One of the things I’ve been missing most from the UK is decent bread. As a result of their French colonial legacy, the Vietnamese make excellent baguettes, sold everywhere in little stalls on the street and often stuffed with three different kinds of pork meat and lathered with various Vietnamese sauces and herbs.
- Banh Xeo. A local speciality of Hoi An, these are spring rolls that you make yourself at your restaurant table or street food stall counter (depending on how fancy you’re feeling). You get little omelettes fried with bean sprouts, pork and prawn, and wrap them up in rice paper and herbs and lettuce and gobble them down as quickly as you can roll them.
- Cao Lau. Another Hoi An favourite of ours, this is a dish made with very thick noodles (but quite stiff ones, not like the slimey worm-like Japanese udon noodles), fresh herbs, slices of pork meat, small pieces of fried dough that add a nice crunch, and a very tasty sauce that you pour over the top.
I could go on and on but the point is that I think Vietnamese food may well be my new favourite cuisine. You may be surprised to hear after this that we have also managed to squeeze in some sight-seeing in between the copious amounts of food we’ve been guzzling, starting with the north of Vietnam centred around Hanoi. Hanoi itself is wonderful and somewhere I could spend many weeks – if I wasn’t knocked down by a motorbike in that time – a thriving city centred around several beautiful little lakes. It’s got a great street food scene, a series of awesome coffee spots, some vibrant street markets and a decent number of museums (though these do vary in quality). It’s also got that Asian city buzz, but unmatched by any other city I’ve been to so far with the possible exception of Shanghai.
The other great thing about Hanoi is that it’s a great base for exploring the region. We made a day trip to an area called Tam Coc where we got rowed through some very long and spooky caves inhabited by bats, and a three day excursion to Sapa, near the border with China. This is an interesting area not just because of its spectacular rice-terraced landscape but also because it’s inhabited by one of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, the Hmong people. We spent our three days hiking there with a Hmong guide called Pang who told us much not just about Hmong customs but about the difficulties of being a minority people in modern Vietnam. They are a group that has in fact benefitted greatly from the increased tourism to the region as they are regularly discriminated against by the majority Kinh people, and denied central government funding and investment. Tourism brings in cash directly to the area, and has also led to an interesting reversal in gender roles: traditionally it was the women that stayed at home and the men who went out and worked, but Pang, like most of the Hmong guides, was a woman, and earns a decent wage by guiding tourists like ourselves through the maze of pathways around Sapa, while her husband stays at home to look after the house and fields. The other trip we made from Hanoi was to Halong Bay, for some time on board a boat moving between the various limestone formations in the bay. Pictures can describe this better than words! But it was an extra special trip because we were joined by my dad who was able to come out to Vietnam for the week, and because I celebrated my 23rd birthday there. I feel awfully old now.
In other news, Alex has come up with a complicated rating system for comparing different specimens of mango lassi, and I am as confused about the Vietnam war as I was when I arrived in the country. It seems almost impossible to reconcile the two contradictory narratives concerning what happened, which makes me think that maybe it is lucky for history students around the world that the history is always written by the victors, as what happens when two sides claim victory and both record their version of events is infinitely more complex. We are planning to visit some of the Viet Minh tunnels in a few days so I hope that will be illuminating!