Editor’s note: James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly is on vacation, making his way through Vietnam from the south to the north and back again “eating everything,” he says. “I want to see the culture and food of this country that helps makes Houston what it is today: the most culturally diverse city in the U.S. (with one of America’s largest Vietnamese populations). I want to see where the food comes from and what inspires it, because it absolutely inspires Underbelly and me.” Check this blog throughout the week for his dispatches and photos.
Halong Bay and more Hanoi, Days 6-7
We woke up after our first full day in Hanoi to take a four-hour car ride to Halong Bay Tours, where we would embark on a two-day, overnight junk-boat cruise. This is an excursion frequently paired with a visit to Hanoi. We went with the Paradise Cruises, although there are dozens of other companies offering tours of the bay. Paradise has three ship options: the Luxury with 16 cabins, the Peak with eight suite-sized cabins and the Privilege, the smallest boat with only three rooms. We chose the Privilege for a more intimate experience. There was only one other couple on board and a crew of eight. Pretty amazing. We cruised out into the bay, beautiful green water with giant limestone islands everywhere. Our stops on the first day included exploring a cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and checking out a pearl farm.
The food on the boat completely exceeded expectations. We sat down to a lunch of beef and papaya salad, clams with lemongrass and other tasty items. In the evening, there was a mini cooking class where employees showed us how to make crispy spring rolls. In other words, we had to roll our own spring rolls for dinner. One of the best parts about this instructional session was that my girlfriend, Lindsey, finally grasped how to do this properly. Every time we go to Saigon Pagolac in Houston, she rolls what looks like an overflowing taco that never stays together — and now she understands how to make the perfect little spring roll. The dinner menu also included Goi Ga (chicken and cabbage salad), shrimp with coconut curry, and a beef and enoki mushroom soup. We didn’t have to work for those dishes. Afterwards we went squid fishing off the back of the boat. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I caught the only squid of the night!
The next morning we took a tour on an even smaller boat, which navigated us through a cave to a small lagoon where a James Bond movie apparently was filmed, though no one was sure which one. (Our boat mates, a couple from Israel, were up earlier for a tai chi lesson on the roof deck, but we slept through it.) We cruised around a bit more and saw some monkeys hanging out, but before long it was time to head back to the harbor for the long car ride back to Hanoi. All in all, the trip was about $500 and worth every penny.
Once in Hanoi, it was time to eat. We walked to our lunch destination through crowded streets filled with food stalls, coffee shops and art galleries hawking communist propaganda paintings. The pho shop that we wanted to hit was closed, but Lindsey had read about a coffee shop that was nearby. It very well might have been, but we got a little lost so we hopped into a pedicab. Poor guy, he really earned his money. Turns out we were about 20 blocks away; he just swerved and weaved through traffic like a champ till we arrived at Cafe Giang. This place is known for egg coffee, a sweet coffee with a kind of thick egg nog on top. It was really good, but not the lunch of pho we were hoping for.
So we ventured to eat the one dish that everyone told us to try in Hanoi: Cha Ca, or fish pieces marinated in turmeric and sautéed at your table with green onions, dill and cilantro, then wrapped in rice paper with more herbs and peanuts. Having enjoyed this dish at Thien Thanh in Houston, we made our way to the place we’d heard was the place to have it here, Cha Ca La Vong. Dinner service at Cha Ca La Vong starts at 5 p.m. Sharp. If you arrive even a few minutes before then, they will shoo you away like a large fly. Once you do get in, the service doesn’t improve much. An employee slaps down a piece of paper that says “only one dish in our restaurant, grilled fish,” you nod, and they proceed to bring it out. The fish pieces are cooked in a good amount of oil, then they top it with all the herbs. The check quickly arrives, and you’re done. Was it good? Yes. Was it great? No. But we tried it.
After some well-deserved drinks and quality time with the comfy couches at our hotel’s glorious Bamboo Bar, it was dinner time. We decided to go to Quan An Ngon. If you want to go try all different types of Vietnamese street food in one place, we were told by many people, then this is the spot. Its owners basically sourced all the best street food vendors and brought them together in a restaurant atmosphere. So you sit at a table, order off an enormous menu and your food comes from one of the at least 15 vendors positioned around the outside of the dining room. We had banh cuon (rice paper wrapped around minced pork and mushrooms), cho tom (grilled shrimp paste wrapped around sugar cane), banh xeo (the best version we’ve had so far), bread dumplings filled with pork, and a noodle dish called My Quang (thick yellow noodles with roasted pork, shrimp and chilies). It was all really delicious and a nice way to experience many flavors of street food.
So it’s our last night in Vietnam’s capital city, and before I go to the hotel bar again for a night cap, a few thoughts: Coming from warm, inviting and larger Ho Chi Minh City, where people came up, rubbed my belly, laughed and wanted to talk to me, Hanoi seems to have a slightly more closed-off, chillier feel to it (in temperature, as well). But I’m sure if I were to stay here longer than two days, the city would open up. Food-wise, what really sticks out to me is the prominence of paper-thin rice paper in Hanoi. Not the stuff you have to dip in water. This paper rolls beautifully and really hydrates well when you dip your roll in nuoc mam. It’s awesome, and I’m going to try and find it in Houston.
Now, time for the bar. We have an early flight to Hoi An in the morning.
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