Vietnam 

A Continental Cuisine Series

Vietnam Journal

Part 2

We spent the afternoon in the old quarter doing various pieces to camera, either walking or on Cyclos, sort of bikes with a large basket on the front you sit in, not the safest mode of transport I have ever been in. We had been warned about the traffic, but nothing prepares us for what was about to happen.

There are thousands of scooters, cars, lorries and busses and here seems to be no rules or Highway Code, anything goes, literally.

At one point my excitable cyclo driver is pointing the wrong way down the street going head on into in coming traffic. When he sees I'm looking scared he just laughs and shouts 'Good morning Vietnam, good morning Vietnam' The weird thing is that out of the 4 million residents of Ha Noi, almost all of them have scooters, and they all seem to be on the road at once, its mayhem. Having said that, we did not see one accident or close shave, just a lot of bibbing on their horns.

As we film we come across many people selling various foods. I try boiled and fried eels from a small vendor selling a sort of chilli rice vermicelli, its delicious. I also try an afternoon snack of crispy rice sheets, smothered with a thick custard like mix of pureed mung beans and sesame and lightly sugared it to is delicious.

We film at Ha Noi's most popular roasted meat shop. Its tiny, and I'm drawn by the golden roasted baby suckling pig and dark roasted pigeons hanging up outside and the delicious aroma wafting down the busy street. The two old ladies running the shop show a deft hand chopping the huge chunks of meat with large cleavers for her customers. Across the road a 'copycat stall' has set up business. A small vendor trying to jump on the bandwagon and the success of the meat shop. This is quite common here Tuong, our fixer explains.

We film lots of streets and more scooters finally ending up at Cha Ca La Long to film a fish dish that gives this street and the restaurant its name. Well I say restaurant, the name suggests its sells a variety of foods. In fact it sells one dish and has done since 1871. The fish is so famous they even name the street after it.

Its a fried Cha Ca local fish, that comes to your table lightly frying set on its own heat lamp. Its served with a bowl of finely shredded dill, not like the European variety more like a fennel (the French brought dill to Vietnam) Another small bowl of shredded spring onion, a further one with fresh Vietnamese holy basil and coriander, peanuts (served with most meals here) fresh hot chilli, fish sauce and rice noodles. Tuong shows me what to do. You sauté the dill in with the fish using chopsticks. Whilst that is wilting slightly you place the hot noodles into a separate bowl. That gets topped with fish sauce, peanuts, basil and coriander and a little chilli. Then top with the cooked fish and the softened dill mix well and eat. Its so simple but so tasty. After we finish filming all the crew taste, its a resounding success. As we step outside its dark and there is no let up in the traffic. We carefully make our way to the mini bus and head back to the hotel to drop off all the kit and a welcome beer.

Tuong says he wants to take us to a good local restaurant for dinner, we all agree, although I'm feeling pretty full.
We head to the Ha Noi Garden, I would never find it again on my own, but its in the old quarter, where all the streets look vaguely similar. The entrance is quite deceiving; it looks like a long passage, with rows and rows of scooters. At the end there is a large open eating area and its packed, we venture inside to an air conditioned room. Although its November here, its still in the mid twenties and very warm. I ask Tuong why Vietnamese people do not wear shorts; he explains its autumn and cold now!!!! I laugh and tell him this would be a heat wave in the UK.
We try Saigon beer, a throwback from the Americans being here, its hoppy and light. A welcome drink after a very long travel/filming day.

Tuong asks us what we all would like and then orders for us. We start with a simple salad of shredded banana flowers, with bean sprouts and shrimps. Its fresh and straight to the point with a kick of chilli and fish sauce, its perfectly balanced in every way, I love it. Next a vegetarian spring rolls, plus a pork version with dipping sauce, they are light and packed full of flavour. Quickly followed by sautéed pork, with pineapple, and peppers. The pork is so soft and tasty I thought it was chicken, its probably some of the nicest I have ever eaten. Tuong explains that pineapple breaks down the meat structure and makes it softer, he is bang on. The roast duck comes sliced and is beautifully cooked. The texture and flavour are amazing. The meat has a lovely sweet edge.

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Large chunks of fried fish (can't remember the name) topped with green mango and fish sauce is very good also, as is the grilled pork, older animal this time, topped with a thickened coconut milk and as dipping sauce of salt, pepper and sharp lemon juice. The only other dish was called 'Morning Glory', a side of water spinach woked with garlic. It reminds me of a cross between a long leafy spinach and purple sprouting broccoli. It was one of the dishes I had eaten a version of in London prior to leaving, whilst I did my research. Tuong explains it was the basic food for prisoners of war here in Vietnam, they called it grass. I'm sure it wasn't like this version. We drink a little more beer and head back to the hotel I fall asleep in the mini bus. We have to be up early tomorrow (5.30) to film the Tai Chi in the park. At the hotel the lads do emails, Tuong goes home and I go to bed, feeling pleasantly full, what a great first day.

I sleep okay, but wake up early, and do some writing, its quite nice at that time in the morning. I fall back to sleep and wake up when the buzzer goes off.

We all meet and look surprisingly good, and head off to film the locals doing Tai Chi. I'm not really prepared for what I see. In one of the squares and surrounding area close to the lake there must be a thousand people all dancing and working out to the hastily set up PA systems blaring out music. The youngest is about 40 ish, the oldest must be well into their 90's. Everywhere you look or drive there is some sort of exercise going on kids playing football, badminton; a sort of football badminton, weight training, people massaging, themselves and each other and its only 6.30 in the morning.

All this exercise continues for a good couple of hours, then people gradually drift home or off to work.
A lot of them take breakfast at a pop up Pho area, most of them cannot be described as restaurants it can be a place on the pavement, or door shelter. Pho, pronounced 'fur' (as we were quickly corrected because pronounced 'fo' means prostitute) is probably Vietnam's most famous dish. Its basically a flavourful beef or chicken stock, with silky rice noodles, spring onion, some add a little ginger. Then when ready to serve, you add a little very thinly sliced beef or chicken that cooks in the hot stock. Then you can add some sliced fresh red chilli, squeeze of lime.

I sit at an incredibly low table on and incredibly low seat, right next to a French pastry shop and tuck into my Pho. Its delicious, packed full of flavour and all for about a pound. This is what I call a healthy breakfast. Can you imagine sitting on a street corner in your local town on a cold day eating this wonderful offering?

We say our goodbyes and head off in the bus to the snake village for lunch. Yep, snake for lunch. I was a bit apprehensive about this if I'm being totally honest. The village is about 40 minutes out of Ha Noi in a village called Long Bien.

 

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