'We went to eat, but came back with so much more' – Diana Henry falls in love with Vietnam

Diana Henry
Paradise found? The ancient town of Hoi An - pascal kiszon

Food aficionado Diana Henry and her sons enjoy a unique take on the tastes of Vietnam 

My sons, Ted, 19, and Gillies, 13, are masters of manipulation. Seven years ago they told me that although they loved Italy they thought I should be more adventurous with our holiday destinations.

Accepting the gauntlet they’d thrown down, we’ve since stared in wonder at the Northern Lights, driven huskies through Finnish snow and got completely lost on the outskirts of Moscow while trying to find a Russian gastropub.

But last year we went on our biggest adventure yet, to Vietnam.

I fell in love with Vietnamese food 30 years ago in a tiny restaurant in west London. I’d just moved to the city and was reeling with the discovery that, in London, I could eat the world. Moroccan food, Lebanese, Malaysian, I was enchanted by them all, but Vietnamese food – with its hot, sour, salty, sweet flavours – I adored.

I’ve been making Vietnamese food ever since, but it’s hard to cook the food of a country you’ve never visited and I wanted to discover what I didn’t understand. While my sons like food too, they’re primarily history buffs. Most of their knowledge of the country had come via Hollywood and I thought there must be more to learn than Oliver Stone or Stanley Kubrick could ever teach us.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi, which we hit as soon as we arrived from the airport, is crammed with restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints (many of them specialising in just one dish) and vendors touting deep-fried bananas, wedges of fruit scattered with chilli and doughnuts sprinkled with sesame seeds.

There were stronger food smells than in any city we’d ever visited – citrus (from baskets piled high with oranges and red limes), peanuts being toasted over charcoal, fish sauce, fermented bean paste and coffee. We met Than, a food blogger, who took us on an evening tour. “We’re going to eat this city!” he shouted as we set off, leading us to places we would never have found on our own and ordering dishes I’d never heard of.

Dishing up pho at a restaurant in Hanoi Credit: GETTY

Hunkering on doll-sized plastic stools, we ate rice noodles with fish cakes, herb omelettes with a blistering hot chilli sauce, fritters made of sandworms – “Ha, you didn’t know they were worm cakes, but they’re good, aren’t they?” – bánh mi (a baguette filled with pork pâté and pickled vegetables) and strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee. After hours of eating we decided to forego a fusion restaurant – I can get fusion in London – and Hanoi’s newest and trendiest gin bar.

Sated, we returned to our room – we’d opted for family rooms for the whole tour. It was cheaper and, apart from fighting over the bathroom, it had pluses. It meant we spent all our time together and that when we felt a little overwhelmed – as we did after that first day – we could unwind and share notes.

Day two brought our first cooking lesson. Chef Ai, who had recently won the Vietnamese version of MasterChef, took us around her local market where tofu was being freshly made, women sat beside pyramids of dragon fruits and prepared vegetables to order, fish were being scaled on stone slabs and smiling stall holders urged us to buy from buckets of fermented vegetables.

Gillies discovered that one of the smells he found most difficult in Hanoi was fermented yellow beans. He was looking decidedly peaky and Ai expertly steered him away from the area where the poultry was being killed.

In Ai’s home kitchen, after green tea and oranges, we made Vietnamese dipping sauces (dipping sauces are present at every meal), spring rolls that didn’t fray at the edges (you have to roll very tightly) and a Hanoi classic, cha ca la vong, a fried fish dish with turmeric and dill that I’d made at home though not, it transpired, particularly well.

I realised immediately that the main thing I’d been getting wrong in my own Vietnamese cooking was the greenery. When a Vietnamese recipe asks for herbs it means huge bunches of them, and salad leaves too; every meal is accompanied by big bowls of these.

You alter each mouthful by using a different combination of herbs. There were plenty we’d heard of – perilla, Thai basil, mint, coriander – but some that we hadn’t – fish mint, which tastes like it sounds, was not our favourite. Ai also taught us that nuoc cham, the most commonly used dipping sauce, made of chilli, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, needs to be adjusted to go with specific dishes by adding more or less water.

On day three I learnt my first lesson about long haul trips to a new continent. Gillies – dazed by Hanoi’s scooters (there are about five million of them), yellow bean paste and exhaustion – cried, overwhelmed, into his Vietnamese breakfast, a beef and noodle broth called pho. We got him croissants – not just familiar but, luckily, popular in Hanoi – and spent the day strolling by the lake and watching a traditional water puppet show. I was relieved that our next stop wasn’t a city.

A Hoi An local Credit: GETTY

We needed some R&R.

Hoi An, an old riverside trading port, was as calm as Hanoi was chaotic. “This is paradise,” Gillies said as we looked around the hotel. And it was. There was an infinity pool, a beach and a bar serving milkshakes. The town itself is touristy but bewitching.

It’s earned the name City of Lanterns because the whole place is hung with them. When they’re lit at dusk you feel like a child walking under Christmas lights. There are excellent cookery schools In Hoi An but I was glad we weren’t having classes. Instead, we were free to lie by the pool and discuss which restaurants to try. In the evenings we ate local specialities – cao lau, fat yellow noodles with dark pork broth, and white rose, delicate little dumplings that look as if they’re made from petals – as well as the best prawn and green mango salad ever.

The food in Hue, the royal capital of Vietnam until 1945 and our next stop, is different to anywhere else in Vietnam because of its royal connections. After spending a day with our guide going around the vast Dai Noi Citadel with its palaces and shrines, we learnt to cook some of the dishes that had pleased imperial palates.

Instead of simple pho, Hue has bun bo, a beef and noodle broth containing annatto seeds, lemon grass, shrimp paste, banana blossoms and cubes of congealed pig’s blood. There’s also nem lui, griddled patties of ground meat served with trai va, a green fig that grows only in that area, and bánh khoai, a stuffed crepe that is deep-fried until crispy.

Hien Nhon Gate in the imperial city of Hue Credit: Getty

The class was intense and our teacher precise.

She made us taste constantly, emphasising the importance of judging how much sugar or fish sauce to add to each dish. She also taught us how to deep-fry using chopsticks (no mean feat). We loved it.

On our last night we joined the waves of traffic for a scooter tour of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). This trip, through neon-lit streets, was the high-octane highlight of our holiday. It was also a bar and restaurant crawl; we stopped for bahn xeo, the city’s speciality of
huge sizzling rice flour pancakes, ate a briny-sweet seafood feast (sugar-grilled frogs’ legs, salt-and-pepper crab, clams with ginger) in a roadside shack and ended up in a moody café listening to Vietnamese crooners sing French songs.

My sons and I exchanged smiles as we weaved dangerously close to each other’s scooters, with them taking delight in the fact that I – who can’t even drive – had been game enough to spend three hours on a Vespa.

Our final meal was at the restaurant of Australian-Vietnamese Luke Nguyen, the chef who has done most to popularise Vietnamese food. The meal added to the list of new dishes I wanted to try when I got home; I scribbled “sago pearls with ginger syrup and coconut cream” and “charred aubergines with scallion oil”, in my notebook.

So what did I learn from travelling with my sons? To look at a tour schedule and smile when I see the words “afternoon at leisure”. You have to factor in downtime. I also wish we’d started in Ho Chi Minh City rather than Hanoi, as that would have been a gentler introduction to a completely new part of the world. And what did I learn about Vietnamese food? It’s all about balance. And herbs.

Three months after our return, I heard the sounds of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings drifting from my elder son’s laptop.

“What are you watching?” I asked.

“Platoon,” he answered.

It was another war movie, but one that we hadn’t managed to watch before our holiday. “Do you think the trip helped you get to grips with Vietnamese history?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But more than that, I have such love for that country. And I have such love for the people.”

We’d gone to Vietnam to eat, but we came back with so much more.

Essentials

InsideAsia Tours (0117 244 3380; insideasiatours.com) is offering a 13-night Gastronomic Trails of Vietnam tailored trip from £3,295pp, excluding flights.

The price includes superior accommodation, a homestay in Ky Son, all travel and transfers across Vietnam, private guiding and a lot of food. A Vespa food tour of Ho Chi Minh City, the streetfood tour in Hanoi and cooking classes in Hanoi and on the Mekong are included.Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) runs the UK’s only non-stop scheduled services from Heathrow to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City from £533.