Our Vietnam food tour has just finished – 22 days eating our way from Saigon to Hanoi via the Mekong Delta, Dalat, Hoi An, Hue, Sapa, and Halong Bay – and I’m back home in Cambodia, already planning another Vietnam culinary tour. Are you going to join us next time?
A few mornings ago I was in Hanoi perched on tiny plastic blue stools with Teagan, an Australian designer and the last of our tour participants to leave. We were slurping steaming bowls of pho ga or, more correctly, phở gà – Vietnam’s world-famous chicken noodle soup. Fresh aromas of fragrant herbs mingled with the fumes of the motorbikes that spluttered by just centimetres from our footpath table. It was the perfect way to end our 22-day Vietnam food adventure.
Our Vietnam Food Tour Has Just Ended and We’re Already Planning Another
Why Vietnam? For Food Lovers, Vietnam is Heaven.
There are few countries that stimulate the senses – especially the olfactory glands and taste buds – as much as Vietnam. Although Cambodia comes very close. Soon after arriving in Saigon, having hit the streets, I found myself wanting to sample everything I saw, from the polished fruit and scrubbed vegetables neatly laid out in what must be Southeast Asia’s cleanest markets to the steaming bowls of soup being set down on small plastic tables.
Anthony Bourdain described the feeling well in A Cook’s Tour, writing about his first eating foray in Ho Chi Minh City: “At the beginning of a fierce compulsion to eat everything in sight, I bounce around like a hungry pinball from stall to stall.” And later: “Everything I see, I want to put in my mouth… I feel short of breath from the rapidly building heat, the humidity, all those delicious intoxicating smells pulling me in every direction at once.”
That’s how I felt on a walking tour we did through the wholesale market of Saigon’s Cholon or Chinatown, stopping at every counter to peer through glass cases with shelves crammed with fresh ingredients to make spring rolls and salads, peeking into enormous stainless steel pots to inhale the aromas of the soups and curries simmering within, and snooping over stallholders’ shoulders to steal a glance at whatever rice or noodle dish they were tucking into for breakfast.
It was hard not to slip away from our little group to sit myself down in front of whichever vendor’s specialties caught my eye to sample whatever it was they were serving up to the market’s busy merchants. I didn’t care if I knew what it was or not, I just wanted to taste it. That’s the kind of food tour I’d like to do next time.
Imagine three weeks of having that feeling and getting to savour the food as you travel a country as diverse as Vietnam, from the lush, tropical Mekong Delta criss-crossed with rivers and canals in the south to the mountainous north with its forests, rice terraces and rocky valleys, where each region has its own distinct cuisine, and towns have specialties not found in other places. For food lovers, Vietnam is heaven.
Our Vietnam Food Tour Really Has Finished. Check Out The Photos!
If you haven’t been following our epic eating journey on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook do click through to see the images I’ve been sharing from our 22-day Vietnam Culinary Tour. While the trip ended a few days ago I have to confess that I was so busy enjoying sharing the things we love about Vietnam with the participants on our trip that our social media accounts have been trailing behind us. Note the use of #latergram
While it appears that our little group is still in gorgeous Hoi An, I’m well and truly back home in Siem Reap. I’m catching up on neglected emails and work, and completing half-finished chores abandoned before I left. I’m slowly unpacking, sorting clothes for washing, organising receipts and business cards, and doing all those dreary things we have to do after a trip away in order to resume our everyday lives.
As I’m unpacking, I’m recalling memories attached to my souvenirs – chilli salt, coconut caramel syrup and durian candies from the Mekong Delta; coffee, tea, honey, sparkling wine, and fruit preserves and pastels from Dalat; H’mong corn wine from Sapa; fish sauce and shrimp paste from Halong Bay; and spicy peanuts from Hanoi. Vietnam is blessed with an abundance of deliciousness and most of it was bought on the many street food tours we did with our travel partners and their superb local guides.
Not all my souvenirs were edible! The bottles and jars were wrapped in textiles, clothes and cushion covers I bought from the immensely talented women weavers from the ethnic minorities in Sapa and Bac Ha in northern Vietnam, near the Chinese border – the colourful plaid headscarves of the Flower Hmong, the indigo batik of the Red Dao, and the vibrant embroidery of the Hmong. I smiled as I unwrapped some ‘silver’ (most likely aluminium or tin) hoop earrings.
I had reluctantly purchased them from a pouting, rosy-cheeked, middle aged Red Dao woman who cheekily chased me through Sapa market, calling out to me to buy something from her. I bolted through stalls, hid behind a pillar, and made a run for the taxi stand, but still she caught me. And when she did, she locked one arm tightly around mine and wouldn’t let go. With the other, she attempted to get a tiny bangle onto my wrist and a torque around my neck.
The earrings were a reminder of that moment and the hilarious hours before it that one of our participants, Divya, a restaurant social media consultant from India, and I had spent being fought over by more pouting, rosy-cheeked, middle aged Hmong and Dao women, being playfully pulled in all directions and dragged between stalls, dressed up like dolls in tribal costumes, and given lessons in the art of haggling for textiles. Those women are wily and utterly charming.
As Proust showed us with his petites madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past, taste and smell have the ability to stir our most intense memories, yet I have to say that the sight of those vibrant textiles in our Siem Reap apartment will rouse some of the funniest moments of travel that I’ve ever experienced. And I’ll take comfort knowing that they took place on a tour I planned, a trip that provides the time for such spontaneous fun to occur if you allow it.
We’re very informal and relaxed on our trips. I want our guests to feel like they’re travelling with friends. That’s why our travel partners in Vietnam are small local tour companies – sometimes they’re so small the owner is our guide in the case of Binh in Dalat. This, combined with the intimacy of our small group size, means that everyone quickly becomes mates.
That forming of friendships is accelerated by a shared passion for discovering places through their people and cultures through their cuisines, whether it’s sharing a meal around a table, sampling local specialties on the street or cooking meals together in a home kitchen, and our ability to plan and enable those meaningful and memorable encounters.
That’s why, as I take stock of my mementoes and replay the circumstances of acquiring them in my mind, I do so with the kind of melancholia normally associated with a leisure holiday rather than a ‘work’ trip. That explains why I’m looking at the calendar to schedule dates for our next Vietnam food tour.
Yes, Another Vietnam Food Tour – Planning is Already Underway
Our inaugural Vietnam food tour came about after a client who signed up for a Cambodia travel and food writing and photography retreat asked if I hosted tours to Vietnam and Thailand. Participants who did our Cambodia culinary tours in 2016 had also already asked if we had plans to escort groups to Vietnam. How could I decline the opportunity to test out a new tour on keen participants I’d travelled with before?
Hosting a Vietnam food tour was something we’d long been pondering anyway, as we’ve been eating and cooking Vietnamese food for over 30 years, we lived in Hanoi and Hoi An before we moved to Siem Reap, and we returned to Vietnam occasionally (although not as frequently as we’d like) for stories. We were excited by the idea of introducing culinary travellers to the Vietnam we knew and loved through the locals who had helped us scratch beneath the surface of the country and its cuisine and culture.
It was a brilliant three weeks but I know it can be even better and have already started to tweak the itinerary. The itinerary structure will essentially remain the same, although I’ll be adding Mue Ne, pictured above, for its wonderful fishing village and nearby Phan Thiet for its wonderful market and artisanal fish sauce makers.
Most of the excursions, activities, tours, and cooking classes will also stay. Many of the things we’d done before, such as the Red Bridge Cooking School’s deluxe full-day class, were as fantastic as when we first tested them out years ago. Our group also loved new experiences that we were trying together for the first time, such as Vu of Saigon Street Eats’ fabulous Street Food 101 tour and the outstanding cooking class at Luke Nguyen’s GRAIN Cooking Studio.
But, as I expected they might, some things had changed – and not for the better. Restaurants that had been frequented more by locals and expats before are now full of tourists with long tables of big loud groups and guides who shout out the menus and instructions on microphones. More on that type of tourism in another post.
Fortunately there are plenty of new eateries that have popped up to take their place and old restaurants that still don’t see tourists pulling up our seats. And as our regular readers know, we were guidebook authors for years for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, Footprint, Rough Guides, and the like, so we know how rapidly things can change (guidebooks were once to blame, but these days Trip Advisor has a lot to answer for) and know how to identify replacements.
And that’s what I’m doing now. I scouted new spots when I could, inspected hotels, took copious notes, and made new connections. I’m now firming up partnerships with the local tour companies we used and loved, reaching out to new travel partners, and fine-tuning the itinerary. Terence and I will be returning to Vietnam to do a reccie and test out the next trip which promises to be even tastier than what was one of the most most delicious journeys I’ve created.
My aim is that our next Vietnam food tour will be as meaningful and memorable as our Cambodia culinary tours. If you’ve done one of our Cambodia trips, you will love our next Vietnam food tour, so watch this space for new dates and prices coming soon. If you’re interested in joining us on a Vietnam food tour, feel free to email us or sign up to our mailing list.
Still Spots On Our Cambodia Culinary Tours and Writing and Photography Retreats
And if you haven’t done one of our Cambodia trips, we still have some spots left on our 2017 and 2018 Cambodia Culinary Tours and Food and Travel Writing and Photography Retreats. We’re offering discounts for a short time only to quickly fill those, as we have our own writing and photography projects to focus on over the next two months. Do get in touch soon so you don’t miss out!
We’d love to see you soon – in Cambodia or Vietnam!