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Spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet : Three foodies tour Vietnam

Spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet : Three foodies tour Vietnam

Dec 27th, 2012, 10:22 AM
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Join Date: Jul 2006
Posts: 265
Marija, I am sure you will enjoy ‘La Residence’ as it is an exceptionally pleasant hotel with a calm atmosphere, gracious staff and a fantastic setting. I am very jealous indeed that you have your trip ahead of you !

Dgunbug, I am just catching up on your TR on China which I am also enjoying as it is one of my next 'must do' places.

The next day the rain had stopped, the sun was out, and we enjoyed the hotel and grounds a bit before heading off out for an early lunch and then onwards to the Citadel. We had picked a lunch spot a few streets away from the Citadel and took a taxi to it. The taxi driver was very friendly and keen to find out our nationality on identifying that we were English got a bit carried away with loudly naming with increasing pleasure and excitement a completely random selection of English football teams [presumably those that previous passengers had supported!]. His pleasure at this trick of memory was infectious, and despite my partner laughingly explaining to him that actually rugby is the better game, he carried on until we arrived at the restaurant some ten minutes later.

We had arrived outside “Les Jardins de la Carambole” and this restaurant delivered one of the most enjoyable meals of the holiday [and competition was stiff!]. Set in a quiet street which, at that time of day, had teenage school children cycling along on their way home from morning classes all in crisp white shirts and coloured scarves around their neck. A cockerel in the next garden made the occasional call and the restaurant with its wide verandas with large ceiling fans and French shutters was a simple but pleasing setting. The menu is huge covering traditional French cuisine, local specialties and all points in between and we were a little worried that this was not a good sign. However the service was fast and charming, tall glasses of Bia Hoi [freshly brewed beer] were brought for my partner and son and a glass of cold white wine for me. We chose mainly from the Vietnamese side of the menu spotting items that we had not encountered further North. Prawn and pork mince wrapped up in a rice pancake and palm leaves and ‘poached’ on a stick, the best squid I have ever had deep fried in a green chilli crumb crust, banana blossom salad, duck with chill and lemon grass plus a load more. All the flavours were fresh and clear with a little bit of bite to them, the setting was lovely and yet I suspect we got change from £30 for all of us. The sort of holiday lunch in the sun that you dream of on a dreary grey December day like today!

Afterwards we almost had to drag ourselves away to tour the Citadel with its proud display of the Vietnamese flag flapping over the scenes of one of the worst battles of the American war.

The Citadel itself is being slowly repaired, with some of the building opened up and some still partially closed and roped off. We saw rows of wooden doors and ornately carved eves being carefully lined up and being painted the day we were there. In one of the buildings there were some interesting photos of the era of French rule [how on earth they dressed up in all those fancy Imperial robes in the heat was beyond me]. It is a big and interesting site but perhaps not enough remains of the buildings themselves for one to truly imagine how it was in its heyday. There were few people about and we wandered over to the back gates and back down to the front again via a side path before stepping outside again facing towards the impressive river frontage.

We had sat in our hotel room earlier that day watching old news reels of the battle for control of the Citadel courtesy of the hotel’s uncensored internet access on ‘You Tube’, revisiting the era when this dominated news screens across the world including those on the black and white TV in my childhood home in London. To then casually stroll along the very same boulevards depicted in those 1967 news shots, now lined with carefully tended grass and well kept gardens was most surreal. I found it encouraging to contemplate how, from the point of complete human despair on all sides within the battle for Hue, a thriving peaceful city where taxi drivers wanted to make you laugh and feel welcome had emerged
loncall is offline  
Dec 29th, 2012, 12:18 PM
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My son and I enjoyed the pool the following morning whilst my partner write some postcards and had a beer in the bar. Both sections of the party enjoyed themselves. The pool is large and very nice and well situated with the bonus feature of the staff bringing around cold towels and little snacks of fruit. The negative is that as soon as we arrived [we were on our own that morning] they turned on some quite dreadful music. I suspect that they would have turned it off if we had asked but as we were only there for less than an hour it seemed a bit unnecessary to make a fuss.

We had booked a taxi tour of some of the imperial tombs that afternoon through receptions. The taxi would pick us up and take us to the three sites that we had picked out of the guide books, wait for us to look around at each one and then bring us back to the hotel. This cost us about £25 and we thought it was great value. As a family we are not keen on being shown and told about everything in great detail as we much prefer to read about the places in advance and then just amble around on our own absorbing the atmosphere when we get there. This taxi tour was therefore perfect and although you had to pay entry fees at each place it worded out very cheap for the three of us.

My partner had chosen the various sites whilst enjoying the delights of the bar that morning and he made an excellent selection as they were all quite different. We started off at Minh Mang and just as we got there the heavens opened, however this was not a problem as the souvenir shops at the car parked rented out umbrellas ! Armed with a range of brighty coloured numbers we set off down a windy entrance road towards the tombs. We were almost alone on the site, the rain dampened any external sound and it was hugely humid and atmospheric, with big languid lily ponds, misty horizons and the large Chinese style painted wooden tomb structures. Up and down a sequence of steps to different buildings we imagined what it must have been like to plan your death and final resting place so well in advance. Apparently they visited it with their families whilst it was being built and long before their final departure.

The weather transformed itself and by the time we arrived at our second location the tomb of Khai Dinh it was all blue skies and blazing sunshine and hence an uncomfortably hot climb up the exceedingly steep steps [we were glad we had brought bottles of water with us]. This is much more modern as he did not die until 1925 but was impressive in its location and the ornate decorations of the buildings on the top.

The next destination was the tomb of Tu Doc and we probably liked this the most. It felt more of a palace and gardens than a tomb with a lake and a series of attractive pavilions to wander around. Again we were almost on our own which added to our enjoyment of the place.

We rounded off the tour with stop at the river bend where the Thien Mu pagoda is situated, this was busier but not spoilt and the vistas along the river were splendid. We enjoyed watching the world go buy on the lane along the river bank outside, again seeing many sprucely dressed school children returning from school on their bikes, chatting to each other and passing things from one friend to the other as they passed us by. Several times a week I hurriedly walk in London over Westminster bridge between two offices that I work at and brush past tourists gazing at the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey wondering why on earth they are getting in the way and hanging around such an everyday sort of place and yet here the tables were turned, the school children were just going about their daily life whilst I was the one to stand and stare. Life can be so good !

After an excellent afternoon we returned to the hotel and, whilst were tempted with a number of places in the guidebooks, we returned to 'Les Jardin de la Carambole' restaurant again that evening as we had experienced such a good lunch the previous day. This is not really like us as we like to try a variety of places but we were not disappointed. We started the meal with a sample of their cocktails. Much fun was had and the food stood up well to the test of a second visit. If this place was at the end of our road we would be there every night! Not fancy, not super stylish but for us a really great all round package of decent intersting well priced food with good service in a relaxing setting. Funnily enough on that second visit we bumped into a couple of American women who we had seen in our hotel in Hanoi and who we then subsequently met again in a restaurant in Hoi An. On that last meeting we briefly chatted with them and they said they had also been to 'Jardins de la Carambole' twice because they had enjoyed it so much, so it clearly has a winning global formula.

The following day we left Hue and through the hotel we had booked a taxi over the Hai Van pass to our hotel in Hoi An. I suspect there were cheaper ways of booking this transfer as we had a huge mini bus just for the three of us but this was easy and comfortable and we had been able to secure it in advance via and email to the hotel. The Hai Van pass had featured on 'Top Gear' trip to Vietnam which is a hugely popular British TV programme. My son's entire preparation for our travels had been to watch this episode and so this particular day was key. It did not disappoint as the weather was superb with sun and blue skies and the spectacular scenery and distant views were all we had imagined. Long sandy beaches stretching on both directions as you looked down from the top of the pass, Danang in the distance a sprawling port and city but also many much more local scenes with little fishing villages and green and verdant farming plots. Again smart school buildings and lots of busy road side restaurants were clear features of what looked like a hugely thriving community life.

Danang itself [or the bit of it that we drove through] was not to our eyes very attractive, prosperous but modern and dull with lots of blocks of featureless flats and rather lifeless large resorts on the beach front. Clearly expecting a lot of visitors, perhaps from the expansion of the airport, many new hotels and timeshare type apartments were being built along the sea front and whilst they might be nice inside they did not appear to be near any local life and were surrounded by concrete and dual carriage ways and an unnecessary number of small roundabouts.

Out hotel, the Victoria, happily side stepped this being set in mature gardens on the beach and within a stones throw of the old town and World Heritage site of Hoi An.
loncall is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2013, 02:04 PM
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Hoi An was the spot where planned to chill and read and do little else and this lazy brief was well fulfilled. We were superbly lucky with the weather which could have been a bit wet in September but for the whole five days we were there we experienced widespread sunshine and a sea breeze. We had booked two rooms at the Victoria Hoi An, one was their most expensive and one was their least expensive. It cost about £ 220 per night for the two of them together with breakfast included. Both were good but the beachfront suite was fabulous. Floor to ceiling windows from the spacious bedroom gave a 180 degree view of the beach and sparkling ocean in front of you. A large veranda, complete with hammock, laid back wooden chairs and on one occasion a small frog, was perfect for sipping a room service cocktail as the sun went down to the sound of the waves. From this private vantage point we spent several peaceful evenings watching the little lights of the fishing boats appear as they set out to sea in the gathering dusk exactly as they must have done for many decades. A second reasonable sized room at the back of the suite with sofa and chairs gave a real feeling of space and enabled late TV viewing without disturbing a sleeping partner. The bathroom had a huge stone bath which was inset low into the floor, whilst the only shower was outside in a sort of mini open air courtyard all over arty pebbles and stones. Maybe we are getting old and boring but we thought this was all a bit of a palaver and would have preferred a normal bathroom all inside and set at a normal height ! However, overall the room was a huge hit with us and we liked the proper coffee machine and the wi fi and efficient room service that came with it. Our son’s much cheaper room was on the other side of the hotel overlooking the road and the river but was also spacious and pleasant and we would have been more than happy with this had we not been tempted by the luxury of a suite.

We also liked the grounds of the hotel which were well kept, green and verdant and with beautiful flowers and small ponds surrounding the low rise rooms. The pool was large and very attractively positioned right on the beachfront, surrounded by palm trees and, hooray, hooray, hooray, no music at all being played around it ! We had no difficulty at all at that time of year getting sunbeds at any time of the day and there was pool service for those whose state of relaxation made it impossible to go the few yards to the bar. With my kindle in hand and all the books it contained, I was in my idea of heaven !

In contrast to all this splendour we were, however, not particularly impressed with the hotel’s restaurant and food. The restaurant is a very large and pretty featureless modern room and the service was fast and very friendly but far too chatty for our liking. We were constantly asked endless trivial questions by the waitresses [of the how old is your son, where are you from, is it always cold in England, how many other children do you have variety] Not wishing to appear rude or to rebuff efforts that were clearly really well meant, and possibly even part of their training, we found this endless trail of questions repeated every breakfast very tiresome after a few days. We can only presume other visitors liked all this more than we did and indeed we noticed others chatting away quite happily for hours but it was not for us. Whilst obviously it is nice to exchange smiles and a few pleasantries this was in the extreme and we never experienced anything similar anywhere else in Vietnam. The food was entirely wholesome but rather bland and not zingy and interesting. Breakfast pastries were a bit stale on a couple of the days we were there and the breakfast selection, whilst plentiful and varied, was laid out in a dispersed and rather bitty way across another huge and rather characterless side room adjoining the restaurant. Daily specials appeared for lunch such as Spaghetti Bolognese that we felt were neither Italian in taste nor local but rather had a somewhat dull ‘lowest common denominator’ feel to them. Fortunately none of this slight downside to the hotel particularly mattered as we were only minutes away by the free mini bus or very cheap taxi from the delights of Hoi An where there are more good restaurants than you could possibly get through in a single holiday.

Before we had left for Vietnam I had read a post on Fodors written by jgg which referenced a food tour in Hoi An [thank you jgg for your great trip report] and whilst I noted it with interest I did nothing about it at the time as I was concentrating on lining up the flights and hotel bookings. However whilst in Hue my partner had picked up another positive reference on an online blog to the tour ‘The Original Taste of Hoi An’ and we decided rather on the spur of the moment to book it via their website.


A quick email exchange later and our booking was secured, but if you are more organised than us it would probably be best to book further in advance in order to be confident of getting a place. This turned out to be the absolute highlight of our trip and if you have even the slightest interest in Vietnamese food, history or daily life and culture then you simply must join this tour whilst in Hoi An. It ranks amongst the top of our ‘all time best ever’ family days on holiday.

Run by a couple of Australians, Neville Dean and his wife Colleeen, who in retirement, have followed their hearts to live in Hoi An, the tour has been created to respect and showcase [and keep alive by funding] all manner of traditional local foods which might otherwise be overlooked by tourists. Starting in a local backstreet market we sat with a small group of fellow tour members by a roadside food stall drinking Sinh To Trai Cay [the most amazing fruit shake you will ever have], watching the daily life unfold from the privileged position of insider knowledge and listening to Neville’s stories and hearing of his love of the Vietnamese people that he had met through his work and of the local customs and culture. We spent the next five hours moving slowly through the market and the surrounding streets, with plenty of well timed shady and cool breaks, sampling food from the stalls, from local trade people on passing bikes, from little shops, and from carefully prepared trays of multiple delicacies in selected restaurants. This sounds a long time to be out on one tour but it was all so hugely well organised and a real education for us on so many dimensions that it just sped by. The whole experience was almost like a terribly clever and entertaining play in a ‘theatre in the round’. We wished we had experienced it earlier in our trip in order to have been even more confident with our local food selections, in particular in ordering produce from food stalls.

Our remaining nights in Hoi An were therefore taken up with trying out a number of follow up recommendations from the tour; “Thuan Y” restaurant in its spectacular setting right on the river front, lantern lights from across the passage reflected in the water, a very simple interior with peeling walls and a motorbike stowed away at the back of the room, great food. The aubergine was particularly yummy, baked until silky, rich and slightly sweet with the tang of the rich garlicky sauce. Fish stone baked with lemon grass. Fresh beer and wine, knockdown prices, another winner. “White Sail” restaurant set back slightly north of the main tourist streets. This was the scene of one of the tour’s ‘taster’ selections and we went back for more, and more. Huge fresh wontons with tangy salsa, more excellent aubergine, Cao lau [pork with noodles and greens], spicy salty squid. More sticky fingers.

Eventually the holiday and the eating had to end. We returned to the UK in one long journey jumping from Danang to Hanoi, from Hanoi to Bangkok and from Bangkok to London Heathrow. Apart from a rather hot and crowded wait for check in at Hanoi this journey was really not too bad and I am glad we did not bother with cost and fuss of an overnight stay en route.

Like its food Vietnam is a wonderful place of great depth and contrast. Spicy, sour, salty, bitter and sweet, I commend it to all fodorites.
loncall is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2013, 02:15 PM
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Thank you so much, loncall, for an incredible report. I'm looking forward to trying “Les Jardins de la Carambole” in Hue, as well as several other restaurant you've recommended. Sounds like we should sign up for the Hoi An food tour. Again, thanks for all of the valuable info and the excellent writing. I know our trip will be better because of your efforts.
Marija is online now  
Jan 3rd, 2013, 02:33 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
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Wonderful report! Brought back so many memories of our trip there last year. The food tour in Hoi An sounds fabulous. I couldn't agree more with you on Danang - I was surprised how awful it was. We were told that a lot of American retirees are buying the condos and timeshares esp vets which I found rather ironic.
yestravel is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2013, 04:52 PM
Join Date: Jul 2008
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Again, what a fabulous report. Makes me want to return. Vietnam was one of our favorite trips. Wish I had known about that food your. Thanks for sharing.
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 4th, 2013, 01:56 PM
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Yes, but I could live on pomelo, and they had mountains of it!!


Me too!

Great report!
sf7307 is offline  
Mar 1st, 2013, 01:59 PM
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Thank you so much! We will be hitting many of the same spots as you in a next month.
sum is offline  
Mar 1st, 2013, 02:08 PM
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We loved your recommended Jardins de la Carambole in Hue. We also did the food tour in Hoi An. Thanks!
Marija is online now  
Mar 9th, 2013, 09:13 AM
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sum, I do hope you enjoy Vietnam as much as we did.

Marija, I am pleased you enjoyed Jardins de Carambole. I am following along with your blog and am really looking forward to hearing about your experiences in Vietnam
loncall is offline  
Mar 9th, 2013, 12:26 PM
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Your tr makes me want to go back to Vietnam.
Elainee is offline  
Jun 16th, 2013, 04:08 AM
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Thanks for the great report. We are off on Friday to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Your restaurant suggestions are fantastic. My mouth was watering as I was reading! It is printed and packed!
Lolazahra is offline  
Jun 16th, 2013, 07:31 AM
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We are off to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Siem Reap, and Bangkok on Thursday! Thank you for the report, and the restaurant suggestions, can't wait to get there now.
gtee is offline  
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