Mark C. O'Flaherty is happy to let himself be guided on a gourmand safari.
A huge fan of Vietnamese cuisine, I didn't want to travel there to exoticise Asia, marvelling at how ker-azy the traffic is while sitting in a doorway on a plastic stool slurping pho. I just wanted to eat a lot of beef that had been turned into bo luc lac, drink coffee roasted with butter and vanilla, and go from north to south playing "taste the difference".
Then I heard about a "Gastronomic Trails of Vietnam" tour. At last, I thought, a way to streamline my gourmand safari. I'm as preoccupied with "authenticity" as the next traveller cliche, but I don't speak Vietnamese and I'm happy to have a guide take me to the best bun rieu cua in Hanoi for breakfast and show me how to eat it. Which is what the extraordinary Mr Vinh did.
I peaked early with Mr Vinh, my guide, who drove me half mad, but who I grew to love. He repeated the most elementary things three times and literally spelt out many of his explanations, but he was a fascinating northerner — a student of horticulture, an accomplished jazz singer and an enthusiast about Ho Chi Minh's Communism. Nothing would top that bowl of crab and vermicelli noodle soup we shared on our first morning, with its parcel of shiny pork, at Bun Rieu Cua Hang Bac. It was pure, light and sparkling clean, elevated with a spoonful of chilli paste and a carton of fresh herbs. Over the coming days, Mr Vinh took me for $4 bowls of bun cha — with grilled pork and noodles — and to numerous hole-in-the-wall joints, in each of which one woman made one dish, repeatedly and rapidly, extraordinarily well. We cycled through the paddy fields in rural Ky Son, where I stayed at the tranquil Moon Garden Homestay and learned how to make my favourite dish: bo la lot; seasoned beef patties cooked in a betel leaf cocoon. I ate them in a church repurposed as a dining room, listening to farmers belt out karaoke across the lake.
Back in Hanoi, I toured the market around Vinh Phuc with Chef Ai. This was more rewarding for me than any identikit temple tour. We watched tofu being made and shaped into pliable white girders, ready to be cooked with tomato sauce. There were stalls heaving with tiny clams; baskets of colourful chillies and limes; delicious and sweet jackfruit (best fried in flour with coconut milk); plumes of banana flower; sacks of lotus seeds to make puddings, and giant live catfish that periodically made a bid for freedom from their giant bowls. The arrangements in the market were painterly: silvered fish heads on tin platters, framed in their own blood. We retreated to Chef Ai's kitchen, where she made another of my favourite dishes: baked aubergine with minced pork, and cha ca — fish with turmeric and dill. She cooked with rice oil from Japan, and instead of black pepper used delicate mac khen, a dried flower with a numbing quality like Szechuan pepper.
I stayed at the new InterContinental at the top of Landmark72, Hanoi. The weirdness of this, the highest hotel in the country, appealed immensely. The lobby, on floor 62, is a glorious, glamorous atrium of bars, restaurants and banquets; the rest of the tower is full of corporate, Korean-run businesses. I wandered into a Chinese restaurant and ended up eating scampi in deep fried almond crumb covered in blueberry smoothie. Outside, there were a couple of sizeable dead birds by the pool, victims of I'm not sure what, overshadowed by the humongous glass tower, while an industrial elegy played from motorway traffic. Here, I thought, was somewhere to survive a zombie apocalypse in style.
By contrast, I also stayed at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort on Monkey Mountain near Hoi An. Trump and Putin stayed there last November for the Apec forum. I wondered if they enjoyed the cartloads of adorable yellow-masked doucs in residence as much as I did. Those colourful monkeys are all the fun.
I visited purely as a sidestep to eat at my favourite French chef Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant, La Maison 1888. It was as I'd hoped — gloriously playful without being pretentious. Wonderful stuff. Much like the Bill Bensley-designed Danang Sun Peninsula resort itself, with cliffside "floating" booths at its Citron restaurant, a funicular railway and a loooooong row of suspended basket chairs by the prosaically named Long Bar, with weird mechanised screens fanning them from above.
The old trading port of Hoi An is beautiful but sodden with tourists, most of them obsessed with floating candlelit lanterns into the river from rowboats. It has the prettiest market I saw in Vietnam, with giant baskets of freshly cut, firm yellow noodles sitting by the river, and battalions of chrysanthemum sellers. I ate cao lau — barbecued pork with crackling, the aforementioned local noodles, stock and greens — in the covered market at a counter next to extravagantly arranged mountains of white rose dumplings. Locals claim it can only be made by using water pulled from a nearby well, making it entirely region-specific. I also went to Banh Mi Phuong for its celebrated baguette with pork, pate, chilli and herbs. Everyone goes. Everyone raves. I thought it was fine, but not life-changing. We drove to Hue, the charming central Vietnam university town, of which I was enamoured instantly. I spent the day being ferried around on a cyclo — essentially a bath chair on the front of a bike — stopping at lovely little garden houses with cafes. The best was Ole, where I made and ate banh nam — parcels of shrimp and pork in tapioca and rice flour, steamed in a banana leaf.
In Ho Chi Minh City — still called Saigon by everyone in conversation — I had dim sum at The Royal Pavilion in the Reverie hotel, with its hallucinatory cornucopia of hugely expensive Italian-made kitsch. The Reverie is a Liberace-themed ocean liner, on a passage to the Middle East, furnished in Milan by someone who day-drinks. It's more bonkers than eclectic, with cascades of LED-lit crystal, malachite grand pianos and Louis XIV flourishes. The dim sum though, is serious business — lush, luxurious, with perfect structure, served in an elegant dining room.
By contrast, my next foodie experience involved hurtling around Saigon on the back of a Vespa, from one badly lit local restaurant to another. Vespa Adventures's "Saigon After Dark" tour takes four hours and incorporates seafood, pancakes and live music — which is where I bailed out. I'll risk perishing on the back of a Vespa, but I won't go near jazz.
My tour ended with a Mekong river cruise, taking a pretty little boat with sunloungers, flowers and a picnic table of fruit, through the mangroves. It felt like we were off for an uncharacteristically jolly lunch with Colonel Kurtz. We alighted to cycle around local farms and small factories, drank fermented coconut wine, and finished at a waterside restaurant where we ate prawns in coconut and chunks of baked mackerel wrapped in rice paper with herbs, salad and vermicelli noodles.
I reflected on my fortnight over a couple of pina coladas, which felt apposite after the trip to a small family-run coconut processing plant an hour before. The food in the north had been fresher tasting, the south saltier and with more seasoning. But the flavour profiles were similar. Vietnam was entirely ... delicious. The next day, while dealing with the comic ineptitude of Ho Chi Minh airport, I realised I'd spent two weeks eating in Vietnam and hadn't had any pho. But it's not like I'd missed out. I could just get the bus to my local restaurant and be transported back for a bowl. Vietnam is a movable feast.
Return flights to Ho Chi Minh City are on sale from $1029pp, with 4-nights accommodation available from $179pp twin-share including daily breakfast and free late check out.