From Henderson to Hoi An

My favourite little restaurant in West Auckland is virtually a hole in the wall but it produces the most delicious, fragrant, fresh, and divinely moreish Vietnamese food served by smiling, fresh cheeked staff with little English. My journey to Vietnam was therefore destined to be food driven as much as by my fascination with different cultures, history, people and language.

Ho Chi Minh City heaves with colour and chaos so as night fell, what better fun than climbing on the back of a vespa and whizzing through the city to sip on delicious cocktails, savour Banh Xeo, crispy pancakes stuffed with shredded chicken and crunchy bean sprouts, carrot and coriander, sticky dumplings bursting with flavour, fresh seafood and Banh Teo, doughnuts rolled in sesame. A stop at a wonderful, intimate, and slightly smoky jazz club for rich chocolate cake followed by a rowdy pub with live music capped off an exhilarating evening.

As I explored the streets of old Hoi An, looking for somewhere to find the region’s famed white rose dumplings, distraction struck in the form of Central Market on the water’s edge. Along with stalls selling silk, lanterns, souvenirs and handcrafts enough to keep any visitor happy, there is an overwhelming array of herbs, intoxicating spices like saffron and cinnamon, exotic fruit and vegetables, mountains of eggs in every size and colour, fresh fish, meat and nước mía, or sugar cane juice. And the coffee! Vietnamese coffee is dark, rich, pungent, and delicious. Do try it. I spent a blissful morning delving deep into the market as I bargained for fruit I had no idea how to eat and spices enticing me with their colour and scent.

Sailing  through the misty waters of Halong Bay on a beautiful junk was a surreal experience;  stained wood gleaming at every turn, soft white linen, shining silver cutlery in the dining room, sharply dressed, charming staff with those familiar beaming smiles. A storm rolled in, dramatic peals of thunder and heavy clouds ultimately cutting short my overnight cruise so as we sailed for safe harbour, chef taught me how to wrap fresh spring rolls and we drank champagne – a win.

In Hanoi I wandered the back streets, stumbling across a cobweb of little alleys all serving wonderful unpronounceable plates of street food. Bun cha with its chunks of pork in sweet, tangy broth, sizzling skewers of chicken, Nem Chua Ran, deep fried sausage served as a snack with an icy beer, and in one memorable instance I even managed to order a whole pigeon, complete with its head, much to the amusement of my travelling companions.

On my last morning I ordered the staple I generally order at home – pho. This traditional noodle soup is packed with depth and flavour, fresh herbs lending unique aroma and flavour to the broth. The variations are as diverse as the people of Vietnam, and in that instant I was transported back to the little hole in the wall in West Auckland – a weird sort of reverse food journey that screamed ‘Yes, I know this’.