A bite on the wild side

01:11, Mar 14 2013
Hanoi-Std
COOK'S TOUR: Vietnamese cook Cam Van Dzoan.

The trick is to not think too much. Which is a challenge when you're clutching a spoon and staring into a small bowl, with a wobbly little eyeball staring right back at you.

"This is good to eat if you have a hard meeting to go to afterwards!" says a local, pointing to the fertilised duck egg resting in the bottom of the bowl that, quite frankly, is way too bird-like for your average scrambled-egg lover.

Maybe it's the outline of the baby duck you can see, nestled in the yolk.

In Hanoi's frenetic Dong Xuan Market, motorbikes laden with everything from cages of chickens to an entire family-of-five charge down narrow lanes past the egg vendor, who has just dished up the Vietnamese delicacy known as hot vit lon.

The raw eggs are stored overnight in bowls covered with nets because occasionally, if it's warm enough, they may just hatch. The eggs are boiled and eaten with a topping of bean sprouts, salt and pepper and, in this case, a considerable dose of terror.

Then it's down the hatch, before they hatch. And despite my trepidation, hot vit lon tastes exactly like... egg.

One of the lures of travelling overseas is to plonk yourself in an entirely unfamiliar setting and get a taste of a new culture, literally, and there's no better way to do that than by following your stomach. Sit down and share a humble bowl of broth with the locals and, simply by eating lunch, you're getting an insight into another world.

In Australia in recent years there has been an explosion in the popularity of food trucks, a boom in farmers' markets and a trend towards more casual dining, and it seems this is also what many people are looking for when they travel.

Research for Intrepid Travel has shown that many travellers are seeking more authentic, meaningful experiences when they travel and that local cuisine is a key ingredient in fulfilling this wish.

It is with this in mind that Intrepid has launched a new range of Real Food Adventures that bypass overpriced tourist restaurants and instead deliver you to the more authentic street stalls, where local vendors like the duck egg lady are doing a roaring trade.

Food is at the very heart of the Vietnamese culture. Family life revolves around shared meals, burbling pots are being tended to at gutter-side stalls all across the country and, to this day, a potential mother-in-law judges whether a young woman is suitable to marry her son by the quality of her broth. So we dive in head-first and with our mouths wide open.

First stop is a steaming bowl of pho, slurped from a bowl while perched on a miniature plastic stool. By 8am, the chicken head pho is already sold out, so it's the beef variety that is scooped from a monster pot that has been simmering away since before dawn.

It's a broth infused with cinnamon, star anise and cardamom, chargrilled shallot and ginger, combined with a piece of beef brisket and rice noodles, and is eaten at any time of the day, although traditionally for breakfast.

"A lot of people say it's a very simple dish. It's actually quite sophisticated," says Melbourne-born chef Tracey Lister, who made Hanoi her home more than a decade ago and now runs the Hanoi Cooking Centre.

"It's not challenging to eat, but it's very elegant. It's got a beautiful perfume that hits you before you start. It's about balancing the sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter. That's the trick, and that's the key to Vietnamese cuisine."

The best way to get around a new city is to walk - to see it all, smell it all, take it in, barter with the vendor selling mangosteen and walk away with half a kilogram of a delicious fruit you'd never heard of until a minute ago.

Lister, who has recently teamed with Intrepid for the food tour of Vietnam, leads us through her local market, where vendors sit on their haunches on top of table stalls talking and waiting for customers. Cow tongues are rolled out like welcome mats and the fish heads are so fresh that, if you peer in closely, you can see one or two still pulsing.

Motorbikes roll right into the market and up to the stall they want to purchase from, honking their horn to warn off foot traffic. We graze on mung bean and coconut dumplings, nibble a fried silk worm, and suck some sugar cane.

Close by in a little shop front, a woman sits peeling paper-thin crepes off a metal hot plate. Known as banh cuon, the crepes are filled with mushroom and pork and topped with fried shallots and pork floss. And they are finger-licking good.

Less appealing, visually at least, are the giant, cockroach-like insects propped up on a plate. However, don't be fooled by the water-bug's hideous camouflage. Dip your chopstick into the essence extracted from it and be hit with the taste of sweet, green apple.

It makes no sense. How could that be good? But it is.

Our stomachs suitably stretched from several days of solid eating, we strike out south for Hoi An. Perched on a sleepy river, it's an old-world gem known for its beautifully preserved architecture, and multitude of tailors who can whip up custom-made clothes in less than a day.

And yes, they eat there too. A local specialty is cau lau rice noodles, which we're told are made exclusively from water drawn from the Ba Le Well, just outside town and said to be exceptionally pure.

The noodles have a distinct egg-like taste, despite no eggs being used in production. Your tastebuds are tricked time and again in Vietnam.

The same water is used in the Bale Well restaurant where, quite frankly, we were walloped by a food tornado, and a very good one at that. It's an unassuming local restaurant, reached by walking down a darkened alley, but it has some big admirers.

A quick flick through the guest book reveals a glowing review from the head chef at Harrods in London, as well as two prominent Sydney restaurateurs.

Owner Mai starts shovelling the set menu of spring rolls, fresh herbs, banh xeo - or Vietnamese pancake - and barbecued pork onto our table, before showing us how to assemble all the ingredients into a yummy fresh rice paper roll.

We roll and eat, until we can roll and eat no more, before Mai walks past and shoves another one directly into our mouths. It's a simple, delicious combination of freshness and crispiness that works.

We've done a superb job shovelling food into our gobs by this point.

But one of the best things about this tour is that you get the chance to whip up the dishes yourself in three separate cooking classes, so the food fest can continue at home.
 
Trip notes

Touring there
Real Food Adventure - Vietnam: This 12-day tour starts in Hanoi and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, and takes in Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and the Mekong Delta. Costs $1346 .

More information intrepidtravel.com/food

Advertisement

Sydney Morning Herald