Vietnam Travel Diaries
By Stefan Gates
There are loads of good reasons to visit Vietnam: the 3,200km coastline of glorious beaches, cities fizzing with excitement, the plentiful shopping opportunities and the beautiful natural scenery. But I don’t travel for any of those things. I travel to eat. Which is why my daughters Daisy, eight, and Poppy, six, are sitting opposite me in a Hoi An restaurant, eyeing a bowl of fragrant salad suspiciously. “Smells okay, but what is it?” they ask, and that’s when my holiday dilemma hits crisis point.
You see, we’re searching for the most extraordinary food on earth, which is lovely for food-obsessed parents, but a bit challenging for their children. I’ll be honest: I make TV programmes such as Cooking In The Danger Zone and Incredible edibles, tackling food fears and prejudices. So far my daughters have had it pretty easy, so this year my wife, Georgia, and I decided to open their eyes to some of the world’s most exciting foods. It seemed such a good idea around the kitchen table at home, but on landing in Hanoi we were met by a terrifying monsoon and sensory overload: unfamiliar smells, sounds, and women struggling along the motorway with bicycles piled with flowers, pigs, and the food stalls all sell bizarre-looking stuff. My girls sat ashen-faced in the car and I could read their minds too well: “Daddy, why on earth have you brought us here?” Luckily, we treated ourselves to a couple of nights at the Hanoi Mo¨venpick hotel: an oasis of luxury.
Time for lunch, and that’s when all the girls’ fears melt into fascination. You see, Vietnamese food isn’t just delicious – it’s exciting because it has lots of dishes you build yourself. We order Vietnam’s legendary Pho and Bun Cha, and our waitress brings us trays loaded with piles of the freshest, sweetest herbs, crab spring rolls, pork balls, vermicelli and fragrant broth. The flavours and textures are strange for the girls but they’re having too much fun to notice. Most of Hanoi’s Bun Cha and Pho joints look pretty downbeat but the food’s fabulous, with a huge turnover of locals chowing down and drinking Bia hoi, beer homebrewed daily and full of character. It goes without saying this is world-class food at very low prices – £1–2 or so a person. But it’s the interactivity that the girls love – they’re already becoming little global gastronauts.
Next morning, we’re ready to dig a little deeper. Time for cooking school, Vietnam-style. We speak to Vidotours, who normally set up cooking adventures for adults, but don’t bat an eyelid at arranging them for children, and soon we are heading to dong Xuan food market with Chen, our culinary guide. The frog-skinner is a highlight: fat frogs are despatched with a whack to the head and then skinned with one noisy rip. It’s a culinary baptism of fire, but the girls watch with a mixture of horror and fascination. We then head off to the highway 4 cooking school beside the beautiful West lake, where Daisy and Poppy learn how to make spring rolls and banana flower salad. and suddenly everything changes. Before the cooking class, Vietnamese food had been an adventure, but now the girls are experts. They tell me how to make sauces, and how to get the best flavour out of herbs – they’ve soaked a bit of Vietnam into their souls, and it’s the most exciting feeling.
We head south to Da Nang and that’s when my wife wrestles control of our travel plans. Time to go somewhere we can relax, she says. “Are you taking me to a spa?” I say, with a hint of scepticism. “You’ll like this one,” she replies. “It’s all about food.” We discover Fusion Maia. These places are all about deep, resonant luxury. Maia’s individual villas have private pools and gardens, espresso machines and meltingly soft beds. The huge infinity pools are set in beachside gardens bursting with flowers and shaded sofas and, though I struggle against it, I feel myself relaxing.
Maia’s spa is, according to lonely Planet, “one of Asia’s most impressive: a magnificent wellness zone.” But the really big news is how this place works: treatments are all included in the price of your room. Two a day! And my worries about what daisy and Poppy would get up to while we are pampered vanish when a team of young ladies sweep them away earn Vietnamese, have their hair braided and soak themselves in water fights.
The food at Fusion is extraordinary, courtesy of chef Marcus. His seven-colour menu mixes relaxed Vietnamese food with inventive restaurant cuisine – and is playful enough to keep daisy and Poppy interested. We tell Marcus the girls are here on a food adventure, so the next day he sends us to nearby Hoi An with his head chef. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, but also a great culinary destination: one lady shows Poppy and Daisy how to make rice flour pancakes by dropping a pool of rice flour paste onto a cloth and steaming it for 30 seconds before laying it out to dry.
The next day we go for a ridiculously idyllic trip to nearby Cham Island: just think tiny tropical island, white sand, quiet beach, clear blue water, Vietnamese food. Back at the hotel, another culinary extravaganza awaits us: a glorious beachside barbecue laid on just for us. The beach is lit by candles and the sticky-sweet night air is warm. The girls tuck happily into their squid, twirl their own spring rolls and scoff banana flower salad like it was suppertime back home.
Then I spot something I simply can’t resist: pig’s ear and cabbage salad. When it arrives, it seems to embody all the best of Vietnamese food: herby, spicy, multi-textured and singing with lime leaf zest. The pig’s ear is thinly sliced, so it just looks like shreds of pork. Daisy and Poppy bend over the dish and breathe in those flavours. “Smells okay, but what is it?” “Pork,” I say. “Ok,” they say, and dig in. But after finishing the bowl, Daisy and Poppy can see from my grin something’s up, and ask: “What’s really in that salad?” “You’re so cool, girls,” I say. “I think you are finally, truly, international gastronauts, and I’m so proud of you.” “Daddy, what was in the salad?” “Pork. Well, sliced pig’s ear,” I say, at which point they march me straight back to the hotel and make me order pizzas for everyone. It’s a small price when you receive two gastronauts in return.
Two nights at Mo¨venpick hotel Hanoi in two superior deluxe rooms and five nights at Fusion Maia Da Nang in a two-bed Spa Villa with daily spa treatments, family cooking class, transfers, breakfast and flights through Western & oriental, www.wandotravel.com, 020 7666 1213.