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Monday, 30 January 2012

Secret Garden Restaurant Cooking Class

We woke up early today excited about our all day cooking class. We were down at the hotel entrance at 8:30 sharp for our pickup. Our guide several days before had called and verified all the details. At 9:30 we were still waiting and after calls to the restaurant and from our guide a distracted young woman pulled up on a motor bike, identified us as the cooking school candidates and then urgently used her cell phone to call us a taxi. When we arrived at our destination she beckoned us from her motor bike to follow (on foot) her down a long curvy alley. This is how we discovered the origins of the "Secret Garden Restaurant's" name.

When we arrived we met three lovely English women who had been awaiting our arrival for the class to begin. So far we were beginning to doubt if this course was going to be as good as we had hoped. The staff seemed hopelessly disorganized. The same distracted motor bike woman had all 5 of us follow her on foot to "explore the market". It was a long walk and one of our party had a knee problem and was walking with a cane. Now it was Tet, the New Year and we suspected the market was going to be closed. Unfortunately we were right and there was some frustration that she made our hobbled companion walk the distance with no need.

But things improved once we returned to our perches on stools surrounding a cooking island. Two chefs, one who spoke english and the other who knew the food took us through dicing, slicing and preparing some interesting dishes (Toronto friends should benefit soon). We prepared fish in banana leaf, pork barbecue and steamed spring rolls. For the latter we made a form of rice crepes on top of a silk steamer. Now that was different and fun. It will sure mess up our kitchen.

Of course we then got to devour our cooking over lunch with a nice sauvignon blanc. The best part of this experience was getting to know our travel companions who had many exciting life stories and experiences to share.

Hoi An During Tet

We drove from Hue to Hoi An through the mountains and passed though Da Nang on the way. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage town located 4k from the ocean on a windy river. The buildings reflect several different architectural influences with notable french designs. This feels like an old European city with small roads lined with shops.

In the middle of the old quarter there is an island accessible from several short bridges. Some people live on the island, but during Tet all we could see were many restaurants, an amusement park and elbow to elbow people as far as we could see. All the streets were decorated with hanging lanterns of many colours. At night the town was dazzling and quaint.

Hoi An floods almost every year up to the bottom of the second story windows so families and merchants have to move their goods and possessions to higher floors during the rainy season. It is know for its food, especially two types of "fat noodles" made form special well water. They did not disappoint and most of our meals here were delicious. We particularly enjoyed our $7.50 lunch for 2 that included beer, noodles and pork and spring rolls eaten on plastic chairs just inside out of the sun. It was crowded with tourists and locals and was scrumptious and fun. The Life Heritage Resort where we stayed also had a great restaurant. Our second night we had their seafood platter for 2 ($40) which could have fed 8 people. Fish, crab, clams, scallops, shrimp and squid grilled and steamed. Washed down with a good sauvignon blanc

The resort was small with well designed and luxurious spacious rooms. The pool was shallow but refreshing with comfy chairs. Too bad we shivered a bit given the rainy weather. We met a fun Australian family here.

In our next posting we will tell you about our cooking course at the Secret Garden Restaurant.

Friday, 27 January 2012

And "Hue" We Go

Hue was the capitol of Vietnam between 1802-1945 during the reign of Nguyen Dynasty Emperors. It still has old world charm and is a UNESCO heritage site. We resided at the Saigon Morin Hotel which was European in design and had a wonderful garden for al fresco dining.

It was temperate, but overcast and occasionally rainy during our stay. We began our tour the first day with another boat ride, this time down the Perfume River. This was somewhat different in that no one is allowed to live on the edges of this river and it was quite garden like. With our informative tour guide, We, we explored the beautiful Pagoda of the "Heavenly Lady". We also spent several hours touring the "Citadel" an elaborate "planned city" built by several Kings. It was subdivided into distinct areas for the King, his Queen, his concubines and then the various officials and common people.

We were in Hue just a few days before the New Year celebration and people seemed to be in a buying frenzy. Along the street there were flower mongers everywhere and inside the market it was shoulder to shoulder pushing and elbowing to move along. After 10 minutes we had enough and felt claustrophobic and left, but not before haggling over a souvenir and seeing the butcher shops. We felt a bit "cheap" moving the price from $4 to $2, but this is the normal game and the shop keeper seemed to enjoy it.

Best of our experience in Hue was the food and wonderful service at the restaurant at the Saigon Morin. We ate two dinners there and each was superb. The first night we tried a "Hot Pot", essentially a simmering broth (on top of a gas hot plate) in which meat and seafood is immersed . Our waiters seemed taken by our foodie interests and stayed with us helping us to eat the food the proper Vietnamese way. It was delicious. The second night we tried boiled pork with fermented shrimp paste. We also had small rice pancakes, each cradled in its own small bowl ( 9 of them) filled with shrimp paste. Just wonderful. Our waiter insisted before we left for the night that he prepare us a special Pho soup "Hue" style the next morning for breakfast. Yum.

On the day we departed our guide and driver took us on a 3 hour drive to Hoi Han (see next post). Along the way we saw wonderful vistas of the South China Sea. At the mid point between Hue and Hoi An we stopped at the top of the Pass and saw the American Bunkers along side of ancient watch towers from a previous era. It was surreal to see the bullet holes deeply marking them.

We then drove through Da Nang the third largest city in Vietnam. It seems less hectic than either Hanoi or HCM, with only about 1 million inhabitants. As we drove along the new ocean view road (on China Beach) we saw many new luxury resorts being built on the ocean side just opposite the helicopter hangars used by the American Forces. Again a bit surreal.

Hue and Da Nang were at the center of the US conflict here and there were many horrible things that people had to endure. A lasting legacy is that people who were on the "wrong side" had many years where they were not able to get jobs to feed there families. This seems to fading into the past as modern Vietnam moves forward,

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Moon Garden Home Stay

Let's start by explaining the concept of a "Home Stay". Ostensibly this is an opportunity to stay in a local home and "experience real Vietnamese life". We had a brief exposure to this when we stopped along our hike in Sa Pa and our guide cooked us lunch. That home was barely basic and if pressed we would likely have preferred camping. So we anticipated our own full Home Stay experience with some trepidation.

So the good news is that the Moon Garden Home Stay was more like a 5 star hotel in the quality of its accommodation - and its price. We were surprised to learn that this 6 room Home Stay was developed by an architect interested in preserving heritage buildings. All of the buildings on site were dismantled and moved here from other parts of Vietnam. The owner who was only on site the first afternoon was probably the least friendly of all the Vietnamese people we have met over the last 3 weeks. This unfortunately affected our experience and is part of the reason we did not find this part of our vacation as pleasurable as most of the rest.

The other part was the disconnect between how the Home Stay was described to us, " An opportunity to spend time with the Vietnamese family." The staff at the Home Stay were genuinely friendly and eager to please; but as far as we could tell they were not related to the owner, or necessarily to each other. They provided a good hotel experience.

We seemed to have signed up for the full program, some of which was delivered and other parts forgotten - like the Happy Hour beer. The cooking class began just as we arrived and we thoroughly enjoyed making Spring Rolls and a small pork roll wrapped in a Betel leaf. It was a great food experience. This was followed by a hand soak and rub by a wonderful woman who later that evening prepared our foot soak and then the second day led us in 15 minutes of exercise. We found her to be warm and fun. We also watched her 30 minute prayer chanting ritual before dinner.

A guide appeared soon after we arrived and he stuck with us wherever we went. It seemed that we were his English teachers. He did take us on a fun 3 hour bike ride where we met some local people; including a visit to his home to meet his wife, mother and daughters. The next day we had a 2 hour walk where we saw some great scenery and homes. The chance to meet local people was the most enjoyable part of this Home Stay. The farmers in this community are noticeably more prosperous than any we have seen in other parts of Vietnam. We also enjoyed seeing the old buildings in the towns of Ky Son and Tam Son.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Halong Bay - Life on the Water

We have been trying to find the words to convey the experience of driving in Vietnam. Our trip to Halong Bay from Hanoi was about 170 k and took about 3.5 hours. Getting out of the city took at least 45 minutes in a sea of motorcycles, bicycles, cars and trucks. If the official road is 4 lanes, 2 in each direction, what you actually see is vehicles occupying 8 lanes and while most traffic stays in the right direction there are always several motorbikes that swim upstream. There is constant honking as drivers alert others to their presence as they muscle through to beat out the other guy. As a passenger it is both surreal and somewhat frightening. Monica has taken to covering her eyes. Oh, and there are the pedestrians, often little children running aside and across the road. A local driver told us that driving is easy if you imagine you are swimming in a river.

Halong Bay is an Unesco Heritage site. It is over 1000 sq kilometers and has a haunting beauty. It feels like we have gone back in time. There are over 1000 islands, mostly uninhabited and many people earn a living through fishing and various types of "sea farming", including cultivating oysters for pearls. They also ship large quantities of coal out to China.

We arrived in Halong Bay and boarded the Dragon Pearl, a wonderful "junk", which was actually a very solid boat with 11 rooms. Each room was like a luxury hotel with a large bed and our own bathroom with shower. The room also came with life preservers and a hammer to break the window in the event we were sinking. Our room was at the very back of the boat and our window provided exciting views of the ocean and many islands.

The food on this 24 hour excursion was certainly the best so far in Vietnam. Amazing service and seafood so fresh it jumped up and tried to bite us. We were also delighted to find instant companions in an Algerian-Chilean couple from Paris. We hope to see them again some time.

On the first day the weather did not look promising, but as we arrived at our first destination - a beach and cave to explore - the sky turned blue and the sun warmed us quickly. The caves used to house many fisherman, but are now just for the pleasure of tourists. We also kayaked around the islands and managed to soak ourselves to the bone. Good thing it was warm.

We slept well, rocked to sleep. The next morning breakfast was at 7 followed by a visit to a floating fishing village which was established by the government around 1995 so that the fishermen could have communities with more amenities and also can be more easily evacuated in times of typhoons. The pictures show life in this incredible environment. Kids learn to swim before they can walk and we saw 6 year olds rowing boats and tying them up as they went to the floating school.

Best of all our tour company went to an out of the way location so none of this was excessively touristy and there were only 2 others small boats there with us.

On the trip back to Hanoi we indulged our driver and stopped several times at large tourist traps designed to sell local silk and ceramics and other crafts. Each stop had exactly the same wares. BUT it is Tet (New Year) and each time the driver stopped he was given a case of beer or coke, which were clearly important to him. We didn't mind the stops - after all he kept us alive on the crazy roads. At least he didn't ask to stop at the many "dog" street restaurants along the road.