Mar 08

Southern Thailand Geng Gari Gai Aromatic Chicken Curry Recipe

Geng Gari Gai (Aromatic Chicken Curry), by David Thompson. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

This old Southern Thailand Geng Gari Gai aromatic chicken curry recipe “has a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” according to Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant in Bangkok, who taught the dish to participants, including myself, at a culinary workshop held in Singapore last week as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards events.

On the morning of the Awards — in which Thompson’s Nahm would be voted Asia’s best restaurant — I attended a culinary workshop cum cooking demo with just 11 other participants, spending a couple of hours with the chef, with plenty of time to ask questions about the dishes made and Thai curries more generally.

While I haven’t got this recipe from a book, as I have the others I’ve been making as part of our Year of Asian Cookbooks project, I thought the historic Thai recipe was a perfect candidate for the project for a few reasons.

The dish is a ‘foreign’ curry, according to Thompson, meaning that it was made using ingredients that fall outside the general Thai curry paste traditions. In other words, it uses lots of dry spices.

“Foreign curries, coming from the Muslim south or over the border from Burma, still have the hallmarks of their origins,” Chef Thompson explained. “Most traditional Thai curries have very few dried spices. Of course, they have dried chillies, but they do not have various things like coriander seeds or cumin seeds or cloves or other dry spices like that.”

The chef introduced this as a 120 year old recipe that he found intriguing because of the methods of preparation and marination. While he says that there are versions that are both simpler and more complex, this one had “quite an unusual combination of techniques that suggest the past; a greater complexity.”

What the chef is talking about when it comes to techniques is that, firstly, the chillies for the curry paste are prepared separately — some are grilled and some soaked. The shallots for the curry are grilled first because, as Thompson explains, “grilling the shallots gives them, not surprisingly, a smoky, richer, more redolent taste.”

The second key difference is that the chicken in this version is marinated in fish sauce and then curry paste for a few hours. Then all of the meat and curry paste are cooked together in coconut milk.

“What intrigues me with this recipe,” Thompson explains, “Is that normally you would poach the meat off in coconut milk, you’d skim off some of that cream that comes to the top, then you’d put it into another pot and fry off the curry paste before pouring it back in.”

“This is the modern, conventional way of doing it,” he elaborates. “With this one the technique that I’m about to show you is one that’s original for this Geng Gari style of curry. It makes it slightly oilier and slightly richer.”

I hope to be able to do a round up of tips for making curries later from Chef Thompson but, for now, one specific recommendation for this recipe is to always season in stages. Chef only put about half of the spices into the curry at first, gradually adding more as he felt they were needed.

“While I adore these older recipes, they’re not there as gospel,” he said, “They’re used as a guideline and to bring them to the present you bring your own sense of taste to them as well.”

Geng Gari Gai Aromatic Chicken Curry

Recipe courtesy of Chef David Thompson of Nahm restaurant Bangkok was shared with the class during his workshop held as part of the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards events in Singapore.

Geng Gari Curry Paste

5 large dried red chillis (grilled)
3 small dried red chillis (grilled)
5 unpeeled red shallots (grilled, then peeled)
2 stalks lemongrass, sliced
4 coriander roots, cleaned and chopped
1 pinch whole white pepper
1/2 tablespoon toasted coriander seed, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon toasted cumin seed

Chicken and Marinade

2 Chicken Legs (thigh & drumstick)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
4 tablespoons geng gari curry paste

The Curry

1 cup fresh coconut cream
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon toasted ground coriander seed
3/4 tablespoon toasted ground cumin seed
pinch of toasted cloves
6 red shallots
1 teaspoon palm sugar
2–3 tablespoons fish sauce
additional coconut cream (for presentation)
1–2 cups chicken stock
2 medium/large rate potatoes, simmered (optionally in chicken stock), peeled and cut into 2 cm cubes
1 pandanus leaf, knotted
1 3 cm piece cassia bark, toasted
1 squeeze mandarin juice

To Finish

Deep fried shallots
Deep fried garlic

To Serve

Jasmine Rice

Cucumber relish (see next recipe)


1. Cut the chicken leg into two through the thigh joint. If the pieces are large, cut each one in half again.

2. Marinate the chicken in the fish sauce for an hour and then mix in the curry paste and leave for a few hours.

3. Heat fresh coconut cream and then add marinated chicken and simmer gently along with most of the dried spices and turmeric.

4. When almost cooked (ours took around 40 minutes) add the shallots and simmer, seasoning with palm sugar and fish sauce. Simmer until it becomes quite oily and add extra coconut cream as required.

5. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the chicken is cooked. When the chicken is cooked add the potatoes, the pandanus and toasted cassia bark.

6. Check the seasoning. It should be rich, salty and lightly spiced.

7. With the seasoning correct, leave for 20 minutes in a warm place to let the spices ‘ripen’.

8. Reheat and check the seasoning. Adjust as necessary to taste.

9. Finish with a squeeze of mandarin, if using.

The last recipe in our Year of Asian Cookbooks project was on the Northern Thai pork belly curry Gaeng Hang Lay Moo from Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club cookbook.

Mar 07

A Culinary Workshop with Chef David Thompson of Nahm

Chef David Thompson Cooking Class. Copyright © 2014 Terence Carter. All Rights Reserved.

“I have no right to cook Thai food,” Australian chef David Thompson said in his opening remarks of a session on authenticity in cooking at The Future of Food forum, an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants event, held last week here in Singapore.

“Bullshit!” would be the honest Aussie response of any sane person with a palate who has tasted this chef’s cuisine over the last few years of his Thai culinary journey, now spanning more than 25 years.

Today, Thompson is in an enviable place as a chef, his Nahm restaurant in Bangkok earning number one spot on the Asia’s 50 Best list above other regional chefs, many of whom are enamored with cooking in bags, saucing with foams, plating with tweezers, and wowing with smoke.

Chef Thompson’s culinary fireworks are what lands on the plate — often from a ladle. The self-effacing Thompson calls himself a ‘cook’ and a ‘pot-scrubber’. His food is a knockout, and not just from its heat, but from the texture and depth. It invokes a feeling that whatever Thai cuisine you’ve eaten before, this is on a higher plane.

This isn’t to say that Thompson hasn’t had his detractors since opening in the Thai capital a few years ago. The Chef endured some misguided backlash from misquoted stories by Bangkok food writers and critics, most probably coming from a sense of embarrassment that it took a toiling Aussie faring (foreigner) cook to reignite the love of complexity, depth and history in Thai cuisine in a restaurant setting.

After years of cookie-cutter menus of same-same satays, rubber fish cakes, bland pad Thai, and anodyne curries, Thompson’s cuisine (as well, it has to be said, as the cuisine of his protégés ‘Bo’ and Dylan of Bo.Lan) announced that Thai cuisine would not die a death by excessive palm sugar and coconut cream.

While this criticism hurt Thompson in the past, to note that chef Thompson has the respect of his peers is an understatement. To listen to chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne (currently No.21 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) name David as one of his key mentors from the stage of The Future of Food Forum was endearing.

Privately, hearing all the high profile chefs we met and interviewed over the past two weeks in Singapore say they always go to Nahm when they visit Bangkok was something else again.

To do a culinary workshop with chef Thompson, as I did recently as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants programme, is also on another plane. He is late to prep for the class and his head chef from Bangkok has had a night on the tiles so bad that he’s slept through alarms, phone calls, and three hours of door knocking before being roused.

Chef Thompson, however, is looking better than expected considering that these are a few days when the chefs really let off some steam from their pressure-cooking kitchens and catch up with old friends and swap war stories of broken sauces, kitchens, dreams, and relationships.

Chef Thompson begins the culinary class with an explanation of the history of the main dish he’s going to show us how to cook today. It might be the first time a chef has told me that a recipe is “120 years old and written by a courtesan, who apparently, was a famous musician.”

It’s a delightful backstory in an age where chefs will inform you that the dish placed in front of you is “one we’ve been working on in our high-tech research kitchen over winter break.”

This recipe for Geng Gari Gai, an aromatic Chiang Mai chicken curry, came from one of the first ever published books in Thailand, around 1895, and Thompson believes it could be a much older recipe, given the consistency of culture in Thailand at the time.

“This one has a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” he says, warming to his dish as his chefs start preparing it alongside him.

“I do like using those older recipes because they have a dimension and a difference and a distinction that late 20th century or early 21st century stuff does not have,” he explains, while discussing the unusual mix of techniques used in the dish.

Chef Thompson’s dry sense of Aussie humour is present throughout the workshop when he jokingly asks a participant to leave after he has suggested that parsley might be a substitute for coriander, tells another to move to a more civilised country where he can get decent coconut cream, and just flat out recommends to another not to make a dish at all and make another that they can get the ingredients for, instead of trying to make a Thai curry without the correct Thai ingredients.

As the workshop and questions continue, the aromas of the curry develops as Chef Thompson seasons at several stages, asking the class to taste it along the way. By the time the two hours of the workshop are up, this 120 year old recipe is alive and very well, tempting students at the cooking school where Thompson is cooking to push their faces against the glass windows of the room, tempted by the fragrant smells wafting down the hallway.

The finished chicken curry is almost indescribably rich, with layers of spices and a heat that comes not only from the chillies, but just the sheer complexity of the spices, tempting the class like a courtesan to take another hit from the pot. For some in the room who have never tasted Thompson’s food, it’s a revelation.

However, the chefs, food professionals, food writers, and critics already know that Thompson’s This flavour profiles are unmatched. Last year, at a dinner in Bangkok to celebrate the chefs of the city who had made the first edition of Asia’s 50 Best list, Thompson presented a similar curry. Served in an unadorned bowl for two with some aromatic Jasmine rice, it blew people’s minds.

Today, as the class winds up, students shyly wander in to the room. They clearly know who chef Thompson is and are torn between taking advantage of a photo-op or tasting a couple of spoonfuls of the curry on offer. Most do both.

Later than night after winning the top slot in Asia, chef Thompson faced many cameras much larger than an iPhone to sate the Asian media. After the traditional press have their photos and sound bites, it’s the other chefs from Asia and around the world who want to pose with him — his peers know that chef Thompson has earned every right to be cooking Thai food.

While even Thompson probably hopes that one of his Thai chefs in the kitchen at Nahm will one day receive the same accolades, right now nobody comes close.

Mar 03

Monday Memories: Tetsuya Wakuda

Chef Tetsuya Wakuda, Waku Ghin, Singapore. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

On a brilliant, bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in Sydney, Australia in 1990 Lara and I took a taxi to the slowly-gentrifying working class suburb of Rozelle. We were armed with three bottles of wine and were on our way to dine at a restaurant called Tetsuya’s.

It became an afternoon that seductively confirmed my increasingly obsessive interest in the cuisine of chefs who genuinely do their own thing — an interest that has stayed with me ever since.

While we had started to dine at the best restaurants in Sydney at that time — Neil Perry’s first Rockpool, Christine Manfield’s Paragon (and later Paramount), Stefano Manfredi’s Restaurant Manfredi (and later Bel Mondo), Peter Doyle’s Cicada, and so on, and the following year we would eat at David Thompson’s Darley Street Thai — Tetsuya Wakuda’s Tetsuya’s was something different.

This humble Japanese chef had come to Australia at 22 years old and soaked up the French technique that informed the cuisine of nearly every chef in Sydney at the time and was soon creating his own hybrid cuisine that was completely his own.

The succession of dishes that afternoon was mind-blowing. It wasn’t just the creative combinations, but it was the sublime flavours and textures. Three hours after sitting down, the soft-spoken chef came to our table and chatted with us for half an hour. Later he took us on a tour of his modest kitchen.

For many years afterwards, whenever I cursed my tiny kitchen in our apartment in Potts Point, I thought of how Tets (as he’s known by those fond of him), could turn out such beautiful food from his small kitchen for far more people than I was for my ludicrous, over-the-top dinner parties.

When Tets finally released his cookbook in 2000, I had already been contemplating a change in career to become a chef. I cooked every dish in that cookbook from cover to cover. I’ve made his Tartare of Macquarie Harbour Ocean Trout with Goat’s Cheese for countless dinner parties as a very small starter, always being told by our guests that it could have been at least twice the size — and probably should have considering I had to use 23 ingredients to make it!

Many years later, after having decided to stick to design and photography, and after too many long nights making the same dishes over and over again at a friends restaurant, we began to write about and photograph food. Our travel writing and photography work almost inevitably led us back to Sydney’s best restaurants and Lara and I found ourselves a few years ago at Tetsuya’s new address in Sydney for a food shoot and a portrait.

The exquisite food was easy to photograph, just as it had been so easy to eat all those years before. And the elegant room was also a breeze to shoot. There was just one problem. Tetsuya wasn’t there.

Tets phoned the restaurant to say he was feeling ill but would still come in, however, he asked if the shoot could be quick. I started to scout locations. But just half an hour later, after visiting his doctor, the chef was being rushed to theatre to have his appendix removed.

When we had the opportunity to come to Singapore last week for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and write about the city’s restaurants for stories, a restaurant called Waku Ghin was, then sitting at number 11 on the list, was the first to come to mind.

Tetsuya had been enticed to Marina Bay Sands in Singapore to open a restaurant that would allow the chef new freedom. With his Sydney restaurant humming along nicely, he embraced the opportunity. At Waku Ghin, not a single dish is shared with his Sydney location — unless a guest requests one, of course.

When we visited Waku Ghin last week, we found a very different restaurant to both of Tetsuya’s Sydney eateries. There was no tight — or hot — kitchen. It is a huge space with induction cooktops keeping the temperature at a zen-like 26˚C, virtually unheard of in a commercial kitchen.

And this time, we had a long interview with Tets, who recalled the Rozelle days fondly, and was happy that his Singapore restaurant had moved up to number 7 on the list, although he admitted he was tired from all the travel and interviews. We told him about our experience at his Rozelle restaurant, and we discussed some of the dishes from the old days, including a certain fish dish loved by all that he still can’t take off his Sydney menu.

During the interview, I decided that I didn’t want a straight chef shot for my portrait. I’ve never thought of Tets as a kind of Alpha Male guy in the kitchen so no tough guy stance with arms folded. Instead I wanted to try to capture the warmth that the chef radiates. Given that he was so comfortable at the table during our long conversation I simply moved a light into position and fired away.

This photo was one of the first I took and even though I was still dialling my lighting and camera settings, it quickly became my favourite when reviewing the images. Tets looks relaxed and happy — unlike the guy on the other end of the camera who was desperate to capture something that showed the spirit of a man who has, in some ways, influenced my life.

Details: Nikon D600, 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor @ F4 @ 1/60th second @ ISO400.

Natural afternoon light is coming from camera left, softened by a light reflector used as a diffuser. There is a flash on-camera essentially there to trigger a flash in an octabox camera right, that apparently did not fire for this frame…

Mar 02

Beguiling Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam. Copyright 2014, Terence Carter.

A dazzling unspoilt seascape distinguished by clusters of verdant islands, craggy islets, limestone karsts, and schist outcrops that dramatically rise out of jade coloured waters, beguiling Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam is one of those enigmatic places that captures the imagination and doesn’t let go.

Halong Bay has been immortalized in poetry, folk tales, myths, legends, and on the cinematic screen, and I had wanted to go since I first saw the 1992 French epic Indochine in which Halong Bay temporarily steals the limelight from the beautiful French star Catherine Deneuve.

Halong Bay or Vịnh Hạ Long translates in Vietnamese to “descending dragon bay” or, more accurately, “where the dragon descends into the sea”, and on each of the four Halong Bay cruises that we tested out for stories, our guide told us the legend of how Halong Bay was created.

It seems a giant dragon came down from heaven, its colossal thrashing tail carving out valleys and peaks along the way, and the rocky pinnacles formed after he plunged into the sea, creating the hundreds of islands of Halong Bay.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and located in Quang Ninh province, Halong Bay – and its adjoining yet more off-the-beaten-track Bái Tử Long Bay – with which it shares geographical and geological characteristics, extends along 120 kilometres of Vietnam’s coastline, from the Chinese border in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin to the southeast, and Cát Bà island in the southwest.

Halong Bay is often compared to two similar areas that have also been stunningly sculpted by nature (or dragons, depending on your beliefs), Guilin in China and Krabi in Thailand. But I think Halong Bay is more stupendous.

For starters, it is vast. The whole area covers a massive 1,553 km² with around 2,000 islands and islets, although the actual area designated by UNESCO stretches only some 434 km² and contains some 1,600 islands, islets and karsts. Local guides claim it is more like 3,000.

There is also more to see at Halong Bay than at Guilin and Krabi. The area has taken shape over 500 million years, as it has adapted to different events, conditions and environments, with the limestone karsts developing over 20 million years in response to the extremes of the tropical climate and repeated regression and transgression of the sea.

The karsts make for a striking sight as a result, coming in all shapes and sizes. Some resemble stone icebergs, others conical peaks, while some are towering pillars. The more developed shapes have earned them the not-so-creative monikers such as Ga Choi Islet or Fighting Cock Islet, which, if you use your imagination looks like a fighting cock, and Voi Islet or Elephant Islet, which sort of looks like an elephant. Tour guides on all cruises take great joy in pointing these things out.

What also makes Halong Bay special is its rich biodiversity, with tropical evergreen, seashore and oceanic bio-systems, some 14 endemic species of flora, 60 endemic species of fauna, 200 species of fish and 450 different kinds of molluscs. Blanketed in luxuriant vegetation, some islands secret away hidden grottoes and monumental caves, while others are dotted with slender sandy beaches.

Taking in jaw-dropping panoramas of the islands from a sun-lounger on the rooftop deck of a boat is how visitors to Halong Bay spend most of their time. See our reviews of four 2-3 day boat cruises we tested out below.

Many of the schist and limestone islets are so small they are little more than enormous rocks or conical peaks, while larger islets have no shore, with only sheer limestone cliffs rising vertically out of the water. Due to their precipitous nature, the vast majority of islands are uninhabited, despite a history of human use dating back to prehistoric times, and cannot be visited.

Bigger limestone islands, boasting grottoes, arches and tunnels, can be kayaked through, revealing hidden crater-like lakes. Dau Be Island, for example, has six lakes, enclosed by high walls blanketed with vegetation. Other larger islands have purpose-built boardwalks that skirt the rock and stairs that take visitors up into spectacularly illuminated caves.

Sung Sôt or Surprising Cave, on Bo Hòn Island, is one such cave with over a hundred steps leading up to Halong Bay’s most monumental and most magnificent grotto, covering some 10,000 m², with a 30-metre high roof, two immense chambers featuring thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, and at its deepest point a pond and garden. Just as spectacular are the panoramic views of the bay from the top of the stairs, but then I’m not really a cave person.

Only Cát Bà Island, home to Cát Bà National Park, is a properly inhabited island with villages and schools that can be visited, and roads and walking tracks that can be cycled or hiked, and, at Lan Ha Bay, dozens of stretches of sandy beach.

The Park is home to over one thousand plant and tree species and some 30-odd mammals, including the langur – the world’s most endangered primate; sadly, only around 60 remain – along with macaques, deer, civets, wild boar, squirrel, and over 70 species of birds, including hawks, hornbills and waterfowl. Most cruise boat itineraries include a stop on the island for several hours of cycling or walking.

Aside from Cát Bà Island, the rest of the Bay’s residents live on the water itself, with some 1,600 people inhabiting the four floating fishing villages of Vông Viêng, Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, and Cống Tàu.

Living in colourful ramshackle wooden houses that float upon the sea, the people sustain their communities through fishing, fish farming and tourism, offering sightseeing excursions around the villages on small narrow wooden boats, or selling souvenirs, snacks and drinks to tourists.

While the dilapidated shacks are simply furnished and facilities are rustic, most homes contain a television and stereo, and there are floating schools, community centres and even souvenir shops.

For many tourists, a visit to one of the floating fishing villages, included on most cruise itineraries, will be one of their most enjoyable experiences on the bay. It was certainly ours – after gazing at the limestone karsts illuminated by moonlight on a magical starry night of course.


Our pick of the cruises

The vast majority of tourists experience Halong Bay on an officially registered cruise boat, from traditional-style wooden junks to sleek white modern vessels.

Don’t expect to see the dark-brown teak wood junks with red sails you see in the ads and on the websites. They have all been painted painted white, sadly. While stories varied wildly about the reason behind the order, the official reason is for safety.

Choice of cruises range from day-tripper boats – usually crammed with backpackers and package tourists – to one- or two-night cruises, which are by far the best options for getting the most out of the bay.

Bear in mind that Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations, so cruises often fill during high season so make sure you book in advance.

These are the cruises we tested out:

Au Co
The gleaming white Au Co boats (they currently have two in operation) are hands down Halong Bay’s most luxurious with 32 spacious, beautifully decorated, light-filled cabins that wouldn’t be out of place in a five-star resort.

Each cabin boasts big bathrooms, comfy beds and romantic balconies. There are plenty of public spaces to relax in, including rattan sofas in the bar area, an enormous and very elegant restaurant, and a wonderful expansive sundeck offering sweeping vistas.

The service and cuisine – served a la carte-style with a choice of dishes – are unrivalled on the bay. Cruise itineraries include Cát Bà Island, Sung Sot Cave and a floating fishing village, as well as the ubiquitous cooking class.

This was definitely the most luxurious of the three cruises we tested out and is the best if you usually stay in five star stars.


Bhaya Legend

Favoured by billionaires and celebrities for their privacy and personal attention, the delightful Bhaya Legend fleet is dedicated to customized private charters.

There are eight different vessels offering one, two, three or four en-suite cabins that can be configured for double or twin accommodation, plus a spacious dining room and deck areas with seats and sun beds. Rates include all meals (set menus) and non-alcoholic drinks.

My only complaint was that there was no interior sitting area with sofas – a must during the winter months when it’s too cold to be on deck.

I loved the privacy and intimacy of our little Bhaya Legend – the experience is akin to staying in a private villa with staff compared to a hotel, I just wished there was more room comfy sofas to curl up in with a book.


Heritage Line: Jasmine

There are two classes of rooms on the Jasmine and it pays to pay that bit extra for the premium room, as the difference between the two is that between a four- and five-star hotel room.

In the style of a traditional wooden junk, the Jasmine offers something between the Au Co and Bhaya Classic in terms of quality of amenities, service, and cuisine.

While meals are served buffet-style, the quality of food was a notch above the Bhaya Classic, yet the latter boat has considerable more ‘Oriental’ charm.

The Jasmine, however, offers more space with a buzzy bar area attached to the restaurant and two expansive deck areas that were a real delight to kick back on and take in the spectacular scenery.

The boat visits Cát Bà Island, Tien Ong Cave and Cua Van Fishing Village. Overall, I think the Jasmine has the best combination of character, charm and comfort – as long as you book the best rooms.


Bhaya Classic

Generally on par with Heritage Line’s Jasmine boat in terms of the overall experience, service and quality of the cuisine, the Bhaya Classic is a cut above the rest if you book the wonderful Royal Suite, which we were lucky to have.

We had a private balcony and the teak interiors were lovely, especially the wooden bathroom. One evening they organized a romantic dinner under the stars for us. We almost felt like we weren’t working.

While the Bhaya Classic is smaller than the Jasmine and when full to capacity the public spaces can sometimes feel cramped, it makes up for it by oozing an abundance of Oriental charm.

If you don’t dine in, meals are served buffet style. The itinerary includes visits to Vung Vieng fishing village by rowing boat, cycling on Cát Bà Island, and a visit to Sung Sot Cave.

This would be my pick of experiences if you book the suite with private deck.



Visas: You’ll need a visa for Vietnam, best organized in advance of your trip through a Vietnam Embassy. A visa-upon-arrival can be arranged online and armed with the paperwork you obtain the visa at Hanoi’s airport, however, in our experience lines are often long, rules change regularly, and travellers have reported being turned away.

Currency: Vietnam’s currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). ATMs are everywhere in Hanoi, however, there are no ATMS on the bay. Cruise boats accept payment for extras with major credit cards, but take plenty of Vietnamese Dong for souvenirs and tips and US$ in case of emergency.

How to get there: The gateway to Halong Bay is Hạ Long City, however, there’s no reason to stay there. Boat cruise companies offer direct transfers covering the 165-kilometre (3-4 hour) journey from Hanoi by mini-bus or private vehicle (significantly more comfortable), with a snack/shopping stop on the way.

When to go: Promoted as a year-round destination, Halong Bay has a steady stream of tourists throughout the year, however, winter (December-February) gets cold and misty with grey skies, while summer (June-August) is hot and humid with occasional topical storms. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when skies are blue and temperatures comfortable.

What to take: Cool cotton/linen clothes and swimsuit for warmer months; lightweight wet-weather jacket and winter woollens for cooler months; walking shoes and travel sandals or flip-flops; t-shirt and shorts for kayaking; mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and a hat; small daypack for excursions; and smart casual-wear for evenings.

Mar 01

Our Hanoi Bia Hoi Guide

Bia Hoi, Hanoi, Vietnam. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

Wine bars and gastro pubs have been popping up in cities right across Asia in recent years. But while microbrewery craft beers and obscure French organic biodynamic wines have been taking the region by storm, in Hanoi the bia hoi joint has never been so popular. Here’s our Hanoi bia hoi guide to help you.

Bia hoi or ‘fresh beer’ is the Hanoi’s drink of choice – for locals and visitors alike. Trust us, we spent three months downing the stuff.

‘Bia hoi’ refers to the refreshingly light, chilled, straw-coloured draught beer, as well as the no-frills neighbourhood drinking spots where you’ll finding yourself throwing them back. For instance, your new friends might say to you “Let’s go for bia hoi!” or “Let’s head to the bia hoi!” Befriend some Vietnamese and that’s what you’ll hear often.

Bia hoi is so popular in Vietnam it apparently dominates some 30% of the country’s beer market. Considering roughly half of Vietnam’s population of over 90-something million people are in the peak beer-drinking ages of 20- to 40-years old, that’s a lot of bia hoi being downed each day.

The popularity of bia hoi is partly explained by its price – the dirt-cheap brew was selling for about 8,000 Vietnamese Dong or under 40 US cents a glass when we were there last year, making it one of the world’s cheapest beers.

Its popularity is also explained by its taste. Lightly carbonated with a fine white head that quickly disappears, the light golden brew is clear, crisp and clean to taste. The thirst-quenching beer is so easily quaffed because it’s so low in alcohol – just 2.5-4.5%.

Served icy cold, it’s consumed fast and in large quantities during summer – which is why you’d expect it to be more popular in Vietnam’s sultry southern city, Saigon. Yet nowhere is the drinking of this zingy beer as ubiquitous as it is in Vietnam’s northern capital where there seems to be a bia hoi joint on nearly every block, and in Hanoi’s labyrinthine old quarter on almost every corner.

They’re easy to spot. Look for shin-high red or blue plastic stools spilling out of a neon-lit interior onto the footpath and street. Although this scattering of seating will periodically be tidied up and packed inside causing patrons to scramble when the word spreads that a police patrol is on its way.

The occupants of bia hoi joints will be holding green-ish recycled-glass tumblers, complete with bubbles and chips that easily crack – take care – and nibbling on pumpkin seeds, peanuts or rice crackers.

The bia hoi interior might be tiny – little more than an area for storing kegs, pouring beers and washing glasses – or it could be enormous, crammed with stainless steel tables and kid-size plastic chairs.

Sit inside and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with locals who’ll soon be showing you how to eat and, later, shouting you glasses of the amber stuff.(Yes, we know from experience.)

The low price is what has made bia hoi the people’s beer, which is fitting for Hanoi, the city where communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on Ba Dinh Square on September 2nd 1945, leading to North Vietnam’s secession from the South.

At 19c Ngoc Ha Street in Ba Dinh, on the road running behind Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace, the Ngoc Ha Bia Hoi is one of Hanoi’s most pleasant, located in a sprawling, shaded beer garden. Groups of boisterous local politicos and office-workers order plastic jugs of bia hoi and dishes of everything from fried eel to grilled frog.

Many bia hoi spots serve food and in those that do waitresses will drop menus at your table when they deliver your first round beers – which generally arrive automatically – and tiny plastic packets of aromatic peanuts.

Other popular snacks include grilled dried squid, and in the bia hoi joints without kitchens, fermented sausage neatly wrapped in banana leaves, and – a bewildering favourite of young Hanoi hipsters – hot cheese sticks and French fries sprinkled with sugar. Yes, sugar. The food is not as cheap as you’d expect considering the price of the beer, but this is where the businesses make their profits.

For the tastiest bia hoi food, head to our favourite local at 2 Duong Thanh on the edge of the Old Quarter in a mustard-coloured building with chocolate shutters. The hot pots here are beloved by locals, especially during Hanoi’s chilly winter, however, we found ourselves ordering the fried tofu, a bia hoi stalwart, time and time again. We think it’s some of the city’s best, and we got to try a lot over three months.

There, the fried tofu is accompanied by a mountain of fresh basil leaves and a tiny dish of pepper and salt (or just pepper) and quarters of lemon. You need to squeeze the juice of the lemon into the tiny dish, mix it up, and dip in the tofu. You have to eat it while it’s hot. It’s sublime – as are the plates of grilled pork ribs and morning glory with garlic.

This joint is often mistaken for the bia hoi diagonally opposite, which I have a feeling is due to a guidebook error as we frequently saw tourists standing on the corner with their Lonely Planets looking from one to the other and trying to figure out where they should go. Our favourite is the one with the red and yellow name on the canvas awning that says “Bia Hoi Ha Noi – Cua Hang Ngoc Linh”.

If you find a bia hoi you like and want to note down the name, don’t simply scribble down ‘Bia Hoi Ha Noi’ or ‘Bia Hoi Lan Chin’. These signs mean they sell fresh beer from the Ha Noi or Lan Chin breweries. You’ll need to look at the menu for the full name, see if they have a business card (some do), take a photo of the awning sign, or simply use the street address.

Or do as Hanoi’s expats do and name your bia hoi after its distinguishing features. Glenn Phillips of Explore Indochina, who was about to launch Hanoi’s first ever bia hoi tours when we were there last year (we were the first to test them out), directed us to the “cage bia hoi” (1A Trang Tien, in front of the Revolutionary Museum and opposite the History Museum), contained with an iron fence, and “boat bia hoi” (9 Duong Ven Ho), on West Lake near the Water Park.

Generally, the best time to hit a bia hoi for the most boisterous atmosphere is around 5-6pm, although each bia hoi buzzes at a different hour depending on its customers.

You’ll find old blokes in berets with wispy Uncle Ho-style beards sipping beers soon after dawn when the stainless steel 100-litre kegs arrive from the breweries and are unloaded from the backs of motorbikes. Late at night, when the last keg is emptied, you’re more likely to see tipsy groups of colleagues piling into taxis and young hipsters zooming off on shiny Italian Vespas.

The old-timers start early because they believe the unpasteurised, preservative-free beer – brewed daily and made to be consumed that day – tastes freshest first thing in the morning. Most of Hanoi’s fresh beer comes from three big breweries – Hanoi Brewery, Viet Ha Brewery and South East Asia Brewery – although smaller, backyard, home-style brewers also provide beer to bia hoi joints around the city.

Like baguettes and beef apparently, it seems the French were responsible for bringing beer to Vietnam, introducing it in the 1890s when the Hommel brewery was established. After the French left in 1954, the Hommel brewery became the Hanoi Brewery.

Although it wasn’t until the Vietnamese lightened the beer and made it their own – like the baguette, which they turned into bahn mi, and the beef, which they used for pho soup – that bia hoi drinking really took off.

Now, quaffing the brew is as quintessential a Hanoi experience as sipping egg coffee and slurping pho. For visitors to Hanoi, an evening sipping beer at a bia hoi should be right up there with visiting Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.

Our Favourites

Old Quarter Classic
Bia Hoi Ha Noi – Cua Hang Ngoc Linh
2 Duong Thanh Street
Old Quarter

Hanoi’s First Bia Hoi
Bia Hoi Thien Nga
86 Tran Hung Dao Street
French Quarter

Beer Garden Bia Hoi
Ngoc Ha Bia Hoi
19C Ngoc Ha Street
Ba Dinh

Bia Hoi Central
‘Bia Hoi Junction’
Cnr Ta Hien & Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets
Old Quarter

Bia Hoi Crawl
Explore Indochina
++ (84 4) 39382245
A bia hoi tour by vintage jeep and Soviet sidecar motorbikes – with designated drivers!

Local Picks – courtesy of Glenn Phillips of Explore Indochina, creator of the Bia Hoi Crawl

Local Atmosphere
Bia Hoi Hai Xom
22 Tang Bat Ho Street
Hai Ba Trung

Water Views
Bia Hoi Nha Hang Truc Bach
Beside Nha Khach Truc Bach restaurant
1 Tran Vu Street
Truc Bach Lake 

People Watching
1A Au Co Street
Near the InterContinental Hotel
West Lake

Party Vibe
Bia Hoi Cuong Hoi
264 Thuy Khue Street
West Lake

Off The Beaten Track
Bia Hoi Ngo Huong
Ngo Huong Alley, between Ly Nam De & Phung Hung Streets
Old Quarter

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