Saturday, March 14, 2015

Galavanting in Southeast Asia: Vietnam Part Two: "Street Food Touring Vietnamese-Style"

Ro and Lotus
As mentioned in our last blog (Part One) our bus broke down in a small town in Northern Vietnam.  We were  making the best of the experience by enjoying some lively Australian company at a local coffee shop, but beginning to stress because we had booked a food tour back in Hanoi and the time to drive back was going to be very tight. Finally our repaired van did come to pick us up.  We arrived back in Hanoi about 5 minutes past our agreed upon pick-up time, which was pretty good considering the circumstances.  We were super excited to try an international food tour a) because we own a food tour ourselves in Seattle and b) because this one was on a moped--vroom, vroom!

The manager of the Hanoi street food tour and two young women with helmets were outside our hotel when we arrived ready to whisk us away. We paid the manager for the tour and never had to worry about paying for any of the food we ate again all night (and you'll soon read about just how much food that was)!  Our two very friendly Vietnamese guides quickly introduced themselves as Amy and Lotus (guessing these were their English names). They carefully put the helmets on our heads, buckled the strap, helped us get on the back of the scooter and before we had time to do a Hail Mary we merged out into the chaotic traffic of Hanoi.  Initially we had wanted to drive our own mopeds, but quickly realized if we wanted to live any longer, it was best that someone else drive.  Hanoi's traffic rules seemed non-existent to us foreigners, but the longer we were in the country we observed it was a well-timed and practiced art of lane changes, honking and calculated risk. So off we went, wide-eyed and excited to begin this night of exploring Hanoi’s Old Quarter and a guided tasting of the city's best street food.

What we quickly experienced was Vietnamese street food is quite different from what we Americans deem street food.  New Yorkers have food carts scattered across the city offering a quick hot dog that’s been simmering for hours in a hot tub on wheels. Ballparks across the country have street vendors littering the streets outside our grand stadiums offering quick grab and go bites before you head inside to watch the game.  In Seattle, where our food culture centers around what else— coffee shops, we duck in for a quick snack while we order up our morning latte to warm up before heading to work.  Street food is common at fairs and festivals (oh funnel cakes and deep-fried twinkies), but the main vehicle for street food is literally a vehicle— the now common food truck.  These trucks are all around our city offering cuisines as varied as you can dream up (we love Marination's Big Blue (fusion street food featured on our Alki Tour) and the Tat's Deli truck (Philly cheesesteak featured on our Pioneer Square Tour). 

Vietnam’s version of street food varies greatly from the American. Instead of a bright, painted, rolling marketing billboard (aka food truck) rather in Vietnam you find street food in stalls, women with make-shift carts or carrying baskets fashioned together with whatever materials are available (sometimes as simple as a bamboo sticks). There are also traditional store-fronts, nothing special to look at, in fact you would probably pass the best places right by unless you had the inside track like we did with our two expert guides. What we were about to experience was that the food deemed street food also didn’t need to be fast or portable, in fact we were going to start our tour with a bowl of soup.
We stopped first at Phở Gia Truyen (49 Bat Dan Street), which was not much to look at and would be one of those restaurants we would have passed right by as a tourist.  Lotus quickly guided us to one of the handful of communal tables available while Amy went to get our bowls of phở (pronounced “fuh”).  When the bowl of noodles arrived, Lotus gave us careful instructions on which of the condiments to add and exactly how much (her mission was us eating the perfect bowl of phở ). They both watched us intently from across the table, so eager to determine if we loved this bowl of noodle soup as much as they did.  After a few slurps of the deepest, most flavorful broth either of us had ever tasted, we did crown this bowl of phở the best we’ve ever had. This of course pleased our guides immensely.  We asked what the secret was and their answer was years of practice, having been in business for decades (our guides said their parents had been coming here their entire lives). The other secret, start the broth early in the morning and let it simmer for most of the day. Amy said that every phở traditionally has the same seven base ingredients, but it’s how you prepare it and balance the flavors that makes the special ones stand out.  It was apropos that we began with phở as it’s believed to have originated in Hanoi.

We have a large Vietnamese community in Seattle (inclusive of Little Saigon in our International District) so we’ve had our fair share of phở normally for lunch and sometimes for dinner.  We quickly learned at our first breakfast in Vietnam that phở is the breakfast of champions here and commonly eaten out on the street at little stands.  In comparison to the phở we’ve tried back at home, this bowl definitely stood out because of the silky homemade noodles, but it really came down to the broth. 
Broth to our generation has traditionally been that can of Swanson grandma gets out of the pantry for Thanksgiving cooking.  However, more and more home chefs are discovering the secret to making their soups and other dishes more rich, is by making their own homemade broth (it’s much healthier too).  Speaking of broth did you know this under-appreciated liquid gold is becoming extremely trendy in the United States?  Brodo (Italian for broth) in New York City is leading the charge by marketing the health benefits of broth while appealing to our American on-the-go culture.  They offer paper cups filled with piping-hot broth for the sipping, allowing customers to walk the streets of New York with their hands around some old-world warmth.
Our Hanoi Food Tour Guides: Amy and Lotus
We may never be able to replicate that authentic phở  experience back in the states even though it can be found across the nation. There’s really no way to replicate the environment where you tasted that perfect bite. It's the entire sensory experience that adds to the flavor and gives the food that specific taste you can only find by eating it at the origin. Elements like the weather (in this case hot and muggy even at 6 pm in the evening), the sound of a foreign language being spoken around you, the smells of unfamiliar scents and seeing the hustle, commotion and sounds from the street.  All of this combines into the taste and memory of the food.  Despite knowing this, we still vowed to try to research some recipes for Pho Bac (traditional Northern Vietnamese phở) and try to have some of this wonderful soup for breakfast one weekend morning. 

As we discussed phở with our guides they were quick to point out that there is a gaping divide between how it’s made in the North vs. how their counterparts in the South prepare this national dish.   Lotus bluntly shared that her people, the Northerners, are lazy and don’t like to exercise so they keep their food light and healthy so they can get away with that laziness.  Southerns are a little more indulgent and heavy-handed with their phở. She promised we would try both varieties so we could compare.

Sadly, we knew we had to move along from this delicious stop.   As delicious as phở is, it only scratches the surface of Vietnamese street food and this was just our first stop with many more to go. It became apparent we were going to have to pace ourselves as this was a food marathon, not a sprint.

Next it was on to try another dish also said to originate in Hanoi, Bún chả, which is a grilled pork kebab (chả) served with rice noodles (bún), traditional herbs and dipping sauce.  It is typically eaten for lunch, but was part of our night's extravaganza. The pork is grilled and then placed in a light broth that tasted both sweet and sour, which complemented the pork very well. The noodles, herbs and usual suspect condiments are to be placed in the broth as additions.  We enjoyed this dish and it would have been one we would not have known to try on our own.

Next, it was onto Cafe Quang Minh (51 Dinh Tien Hoang).  We found parking for the mopeds and then our guides quickly seated us at one of the small, teeny-tiny tables that might be found in a child’s room back in the states.  Amy dashes off and brings us back a popular snack named nộm bò khô (green papaya salad).  Don’t let the name fool you as it did us, it sounds so cool and refreshing, but is actually a very complex combination of flavors.  The salad is sweet and spicy from the thin slices of beef soaked in a mixture of cane sugar, garlic, oil, ginger and chili, which is soaked overnight and then oven dried.  Sour from the julienned green papaya pickled in vinegar.  There’s a freshness from the herbs and crunch and saltiness from the peanuts.  It’s all tied together with a dressing base of fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, chili, seasonings and soy sauce.  The Vietnamese are masters of finding a perfect balance of flavors in their cooking.

America is a sandwich loving nation and this was to be our next tasting. One of our favorite sandwiches is the somewhat ubiquitous Vietnamese bánh mì, which has popped up all over the United States.  In Hanoi, these sandwiches are spelled "Banh My” and are usually consumed for breakfast. The baguette (the vehicle for this
delicious sandwich) was introduced during French occupation. The fillings however are very much Southeast Asian; pickled carrots and daikon, hot chili peppers and herbs. 
Lotus ordered our monster combo sandwich called "the banh my that cam" from Banh My Pho (38 Dinh Liet).  This was the mother of all sandwiches that dare to classify themselves as a Vietnamese banh my. It had pâté, egg, herbs, mayo and a very crunchy baguette.  It's amazing how good simple, well prepared street food can taste! This Banh My was definitely a “My Oh My!"

We then gave our stomachs a break and did some touring around Hanoi, seeing signs and decorations starting to be put up to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year or Tết , which is the most important celebration in the Vietnamese culture.  We continued onto Thanh Nien Street, which runs right by the Ho Chi Minh Complex where Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place is.  His embalmed body is on
public display (despite his request to be cremated). This practice seemed a little morbid to us, but is similar to other communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin. Our guides told us that the body is sent to Russia for a couple of months each year to be "properly maintained."  We spoke a little about the country's politics and understood a little more about how the people feel with their current government leaders. But, never a good idea to linger too long talking about embalmed bodies and politics-- kind of an appetite killer.  

We then made our way to West Lake, a fresh water lake in the middle of Hanoi.  Amy confessed that she and Lotus love renting the duck shaped boats, paddling up behind swooning lovers and making kissing sounds behind them — what a couple of tricksters.  We pulled the mopeds over alongside the lake to try one of the traditional snacks of this neighborhood, Bò bía, or as Lotus translated it for us, coconut cake.  This is a made to order street dessert made from two thin honeycomb pancakes made with sesame seeds and coconut placed on top of the pancakes and then rolled up into a cone shape and handed over as a hand-held treat.  

We then continued around Truc Bach Lake (Hanoi has several lakes within the city) and passed what Amy called the wealthy neighborhood, where she dreams of someday owning an apartment on the lake.  We wound our way past make-shift street fires being used like tiny little campfires to make even more street food.  We ended up on Ngu Xa Street to try phở cuon, which is generally found only in Hanoi and specifically in this neighborhood. We noted that certain types of street food are specific to the city, certain neighborhoods and even down to the street level.  Unlike traditional phở, phở cuon does not contain broth.  Also, traditional phở ingredients are replaced with fried brief and rice noodles rolled into what resembles a spring roll and served with dipping sauce on the side. Again we found the offering pretty darn delicious!

Still going…can you believe it? At the next stop (Quán Gốc Đa - 52 Ly Quoc Su) we had a plethora of snacks and by this time we were really struggling to even try another bite— where’s the white flag?  Next for us to try were: bánh gối (pillow cakes or fried dumplings), Bánh rán (a deep-fried glutinous rice ball), Nem chua (fried fermented pork rolls).  Our two guides had to help us to eat most of these items, which they were very willing to help with. All these snacks were washed down with local coconut juice.

One more savory stop— our guides told us we had to try the South’s version of phở so we could compare and they were confident we would prefer the Northern variety.  For this taste test, we

headed to Quán Bún Bò Nam Bộ (67 Hang Dien Street) to try another bowl of beef noodles. Bún Bò
Nam Bộ is also known as stirred beef vermicelli.  The main difference we noted was the absence of broth, instead the noodles were coated in a fish based sauce.  It was more like a salad vs. a soup.  But, at this point we were so full we only had a bite or so and had to call it, since we had dessert and coffee left on the schedule.  We'd have to do a true comparison another day.

We headed to Sua Chua Mit Hoang Anh (22B Ba Trieu
) for some frozen yogurt. We were given no choice, but to try the girls' own yogurt creation dubbed the “chop chop” because of all their additions to the yogurt and how they creatively use chopsticks to mix it all up. They had some of the tapioca used in bubble tea with yogurt, fruit and caramel. How can you resist saying no to these two?

Our last stop was to try a Hanoi speciality, egg coffee at Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Huu Huan) and being Seattleites we were very curious what this might taste
like.  We were glad we had our trusty guides as Cafe Giang is tucked away in a non-descript lane (a bit speak-easy-esk).  This is one of Hanoi’s treasures.  It was founded back in 1946 by Mr. Nguyen, whose family still runs the place. Amy told us that her grandparents and parents love this place.  

Mr. Nguyen has kept his egg coffee recipe almost the same as in the early days.  The main ingredients are egg yolk as the name implies, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk and butter (definitely not the lowest-calorie choice).  This coffee was developed due to the scarcity of milk, so egg yolks were used as a replacement for the fat.  The yolks are whisked into the other ingredients and then added to the brewed coffee.  

It became apparent as we climbed the stairs to the 2nd level that this was a very popular place with the locals as there was standing room only.  The girls somehow managed to find us a little table to sit at for our egg coffee tasting. 

As we were chatting with the girls and sipping away we noticed a local man staring at us.  Eventually he made his way over through the crowd and introduced himself as our hotel front desk agent. He asked if we were enjoying the coffee.  We replied, we found it very sweet, rich and decadent.  What a fun coincidence to meet him in a completely different part of the city, which proved the locals really do love this place.  It was also a very fitting way to end our dabble into the street foods of Hanoi.

Vietnamese egg coffee
By now, we were stick-a-fork in us done. What a whirl-wind tour of this ancient city (Hanoi celebrated it's millennium birthday a few years back). We really enjoyed our food tour and the time we spent with our fun guides Lotus and Amy. There's nothing like being taken to the best spots to eat in the city and learning about the culture and vibe by hanging out with the locals. We definitely came away with a love of Vietnamese street food, in fact we don't know why you would book an expensive fancy dinner here when the street food is so darn good!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Galavanting in Southeast Asia: Vietnam Part 1: "and so the adventure begins"

Our most excellent adventures continue and this time to Southeast Asia.  Apologies for the pause in posting blogs, but we were very busy starting up our new food tour business Taste Seattle Food Tours.  Are we crazy?  Of course!  But there was a method to our madness—we both have a passion for food and sharing out beautiful city of Seattle so a food tour was the perfect medium to do both.  Plus, we figured we could take time off during the winter season for our other passion traveling.

Speaking of travel—this year we each picked a place from our respective bucket lists.  For Ro, being an island girl at heart, she had always found Bali to be a place she hoped to visit. We decided this would be a perfect place to get some sunshine in January.  Early in Flo’s childhood and after the Vietnam War had ended she remembers having a young Vietnamese man who was attending the local university visit her family.  He was trying to bring the rest of his family to the United States.  With a child’s mind, the seriousness of this situation was incomprehensible.  Instead what was gleaned was there were other countries and different cultures to be explored.  It subconsciously planted the desire to go to that absolutely foreign sounding country of Vietnam someday.  We quickly realized when we started planning our adventure that to return to Seattle from Bali was too far and we were going to need to connect somewhere.  So we added in South Korea to the itinerary.  Suddenly, we were writing our own Eat, Pray, Love script, with the emphasis on the Eat.

The most difficult part of our great journey to Southeast Asia was  literally getting on the plane.  We consider ourselves seasoned travelers, but made a critical rookie mistake.  We had booked a tour in Vietnam and relied on the booking travel service to advise us on any special travel considerations.  However, imagine our disappointment in misplacing our trust, when we showed up to the airport the morning of our flight brimming with excitement to begin our long anticipated adventure only to be told when we checked-in that we couldn’t get on the airplane without a Vietnam Visa.  The next 48 hours were spent scrambling to get an expedited visa and find seats on new flights without needing to mortgage the farm to pay for fare differences.  By some miracle, we returned to the airport two days later, vowing to never rely on someone else again to tell us what is required to travel and with renewed excitement and determination. Even more drama ensued halfway across the Pacific when there was an announcement over the PA asking for a doctor to help with a passenger's medical emergency. There were moments considering the possibility that we were going to need to turn around and head back to Seattle.  However, we later learned that said passenger had indulged a little too heavily on the booze on board and had fallen on his way to the restroom. He was patched up with a make shift gauze turban around his head, making him look like a mummy, but crisis averted.  Julia Robert’s character in Eat, Pray, Love endured a terrible divorce to begin that movie, luckily our obstacles paled in comparison, but still had tinges of the same Hollywood drama.

Flash ahead almost 24 hours and after a layover in Tokyo, Japan we finally arrived in Hanoi.  With a bit more drama at the visa counter we were finally admitted into the country.  Not the warmest of welcomes, but after traveling for a full day, all we cared about at this point was finding a bed to sleep in.  One of the things we soon got very accustomed to (a real plus of booking a tour) was having a driver waiting for us just outside the airport to whisk us away to our hotel.   We got a few key hours of sleep before our first venture out into the country began the next morning.

We experienced our first Vietnamese breakfast bright and early that first morning.  It’s where we first experienced starting the day off with a piping hot bowl of noodles (Pho).  It’s no surprise that almost every culture has the equivalent of chicken noodle soup and Pho is Vietnam’s equivalent of this comforting food.  Neither of us could remember ever starting the day with soup, which is a shame because it’s actually quite lovely.  As we peered out the dining room window and looked across the busy street through the raindrops there were several locals sitting at child-sized tables squatting on tiny chairs devouring similar bowls of noodles.  

We didn’t have much time to linger over breakfast as we were picked up by our tour guide and loaded onto a tourist bus.  We began to get our first look at Hanoi city as the bus wound it’s way through the streets stopping at various hotels to pick up other tourists.  There was a rhythm to the morning— locals eating street noodles for breakfast, women carrying their wares with a bamboo stick balancing on their shoulders, the iconic pointy hat also made from bamboo. From our perch on the bus, we got a quick snapshot of the city, which we would return to, but first we were starting our three-hour journey East to Ha Long Bay, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature.  

Our journey took us over the Red River and into more rural providences seeing plenty of rice patties, a few monkeys and some water buffalo.  On the journey, we heard stories of how poor most Vietnamese are, making less than $50 US per month.  Also, how in the country outside the large cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, people hold onto tradition even when in stark contrast to modern knowledge and technology.  Our guide Vinh, told us about an ancient tradition of Vietnamese women where they smoke a bamboo water pipe with guests to welcome them to their home.  She said this tradition is why many older Vietnamese women have black teeth.  To this day, they still believe this practice gives them health and calms the nerves, despite all of the scientific evidence on the danger of smoking.  

Cue in music here from Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing:
Tradition, tradition! Tradition! Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
We also began to hear about how this country has survived an almost continuous onslaught of invasions including the Chinese, Mongolians, French and Americans.  This was the beginning of learning about the fierce determination the Vietnamese people seemingly embody in their genes to fight stronger foes.  As we got closer to our destination our guide recounted a story of when Ha Long Bay was invaded by Chinese hundreds of years ago.  The intelligent Vietnamese knew they could not out power their enemy, but they could out think them. At low tide they put sharp poles down into the floor of the bay, which became covered when the water returned.  As the Chinese boats came into the bay, they were gouged and began to sink and the Chinese were forced to retreat.  

Armed with some history and cultural information we finally arrived at the dock and were shuttled onto a day boat, which would take us to the V’Spirit junk (floating hotel boat) and once aboard we soon set sail into the bay.  We were assigned cabins where we quickly dropped off our bags and returned to the dining room.  The timing was impeccable as we sat down to lunch we suddenly saw the limestone karsts begin to emerge from the water.  The junk sailed effortlessly by dozens of these limestone mountains and the bay quickly filled up with many other boats bringing with them more tourists.  It was really like nothing we’ve ever seen before and very peaceful despite the number of boats.   The only unfortunate thing was mother nature was not cooperating with sunny weather so we did forego some of the planned activities like kayaking, swimming and night fishing.  However, we did get our Indiana Jones on and went cave exploring.

We took a day boat over to Bo Hon Island (one of the thousands of islands that makes up Ha Long Bay), donned our plastic raincoats and ascended the exactly fifty steps to the entrance of Sung Sot Cave.  We stood at about 100 feet above sea level and were able to get a gorgeous bird’s eye view of the bay from here.  We then took several steps down into the cave’s outer entrance and entered a room covered with stalactites and stalagmites.  Our tour guide, Vinh, had us play the game you play with clouds, imagining different animals out of the stalactites.  

Upon returning to the junk we snuck in a pre-dinner nap as the jet lag was hitting us hard.  We awoke to the PA system announcing dinner would be served in five minutes.  We reluctantly left slumber and joined the rest of the passengers and crew on the upper deck.  We enjoyed a lovely multi-course traditional Vietnamese dinner served family style.  The chef even put on a show by flambéing shrimp.  At our table was a man and his niece from Houston, Texas and a retired couple from Malaysia. Turns out the two people from Houston would be the only Americans we encountered on our entire trip. After dinner we divided up into teams and tried to solve an ancient Vietnamese puzzle game, competing for Vietnamese beer.  We thought we had won at one point, only to find out that one of our pieces wasn’t right.  We took our defeat in stride and decided to console ourselves by retiring somewhat early to our cabin, exhausted from the days adventures and immersing ourselves in a new culture.  Needless to say we slept very well.

The six a.m. planned group exercise session came all too early and we did not make it to morning tai chi on the lido deck, but definitely did not miss breakfast as that was a announced again over the PA system and very difficult to sleep through.  Even if we had wanted to sleep in late, this was not an option with this well-oiled machine-like operation.  

After breakfast we were given a few minutes to freshen up and then we were taken by day boat to another island called Soi Sim.  We walked past the beach that had a few monkeys hanging out in the overhanging trees.  We were warned ahead of time to hold onto anything we considered valuable as apparently this band of monkeys were known thieves.  We decided to forego getting into the water because it was still pretty cool and instead hiked up the steep landscape to the top to get another great view of the bay.  This was way more than yesterday’s fifty steps, but we were well rewarded by the beautiful scenery at the top.  

Once back on the junk we were treated to a cooking lesson including how to make Vietnamese spring rolls and decorations out of fruit.  The chef then returned to the kitchen to cook us another lovely traditional meal.  We then bid adieu to Ha Long Bay, loaded ourselves back onto the bus for what was supposed to be a 2 hour return to Hanoi.  Cue foreboding music in the background....
Our bus ended up breaking down on the way back to the city and we had to pull off in a small town to get it repaired.  We waited around the garage for an hour until the bus was diagnosed as not a fast repair.  

We then ended up going to a local coffee shop to wait for a replacement bus to come and pick us up.  We got to know a group of Australians from Darwin (Aussies tend to be the best people to get stranded with— highly entertaining).  Some of them drank beer, while we tried traditional Vietnamese coffee.  

French colonists first introduced coffee to Vietnam in the late 19th century.  This unique style of coffee using condensed milk was invented out of necessity because milk is hard to keep fresh in the heat so they began to substitute milk and cream for sweet condensed milk.  It tastes really good, you just can't think about the calories.

If you are going to get stranded in rural Vietnam, this would be the ideal scenario.  However, we were anxious to get back to Hanoi for our scheduled night street food tour and began to sweat it out the longer it took for the replacement bus to arrive.  Plus, the sugar and caffeine started to kick-in.

To be continued…..