Over the years of being ill, I decided the best thing for me was to escape to different countries where I didn’t know anyone and escape my depression. The thing I learnt quickly, but ignored every time is that depression and such things don’t stay in one place – it’s in you and will follow you wherever you go. Obviously, if you are living in a place that triggers you for whatever reasons (abuse etc) it’s probably a good thing to change areas. I used to go away for a month or so and be fine for the first week and say ‘Ha!! I told you going away was a good idea’, then the second week would turn up and things would start to go slightly wobbly and after a while I’d go back home and admit that it didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from doing it again and again though.
I recently went away to Vietnam with my boyfriend and instead of doing it as a holiday of doing nothing, we turned it in to a ‘research’ holiday for ‘foodspiration’.
We started in Ho Chi Minh where we stayed for a few days doing all of the typical touristy things but mainly just eating our way around the city. One of the days, we spent most of the morning walking around the city looking for a shop that Sam had found online that sold Black Garlic. I didn’t know much about Black Garlic apart from that it was becoming a big fad in London and all the cool places were now using it. In Vietnam, however, they hadn’t heard of people cooking with it – they used it for medicinal purposes. It’s main uses are for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, helps protect you from cancer and fights infections. It’s a very interesting flavour, sweet and smoky and doesn’t really taste of garlic at all. It was first found by a Korean who had forgotten about his garlic crop and he thought it was ruined because it had turned black and soft – little did he know, he had created a masterpiece in the culinary and medicinal world. Black Garlic is made by leaving the garlic in a warm, damp place so it starts fermenting. We bought a load back with us and haven’t used it much yet, apart from using it once to make an aioli for calamari. It is so delicious like this but the colour can be quite off putting. We have so many dishes we want to try with it, I can’t wait!
Another thing we found in Ho Chi Minh was that they eat a LOT of sea snails. We tried some that were cooked in a sticky chilli sauce and to extract the snails from the shell they give you a small safety pin – interesting utensil to say the least!! I enjoyed the first few but we had a mound to get through and with the chewy texture, I got quite bored of them quite quickly. Sam, on the other hand wasn’t sure at first but got more and more into them the more he ate. They would be a good nibbling dish whilst having drinks but rather messy.
After a brief stop at a lovely place called Jungle Beach, an hour from Nha Trang, we had a rather hideous bus journey to Hoi An through the mountains – not fun for someone who gets very car sick!! Hoi An turned out to be one of our favourite places. It was almost like someone had picked up a small Italian village and put it in the middle of Vietnam. It was beautiful! I think this is where we had the most fun with the street food. We hired a motorbike (sorry Mumma and Pups!) and toured through the town finding little alleyways with hawkers making Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches influenced by the French, filled with pate, ham, salad, chilli sauce etc etc), Vietnamese doughnuts and banana fritters, mango cakes (a bit like the Japanese mochi balls), Banh Xeo (rice pancakes, a bit like Indian dosas, filled with prawns and bean sprouts) and our favourite – Cao Lau – a noodle dish that is only made in Hoi An because there is one well in the town which you have to use the water from to cook the noodles in. In the dish, they put in pork, herbs, bean sprouts and a bit of pork broth, topped with a few deep friend noodles. Most (if not all) the noodle soup dishes in Vietnam have a broth as the liquid. Fresh broth (without MSG) is so good for you and really helps boost your immune system. When you have a cold or flu, chicken broth is the best way to cure it.
What we also found in Hoi An were the most amazing markets, selling all sorts of fruit, veg, herbs, meats, fish, spices, you name it, they had it. One afternoon we were given a proper tour around the markets with a guy from a local cooking school. We thought we knew everything but this guy really opened our eyes. We also found the most amazing coffee shop where we spent a good 2 hours talking to the owner, learning about the beans and production and doing lots of sampling. Needless to say, the coffee addict that I am, left with 3kg of coffee #sorrynotsorry! We noticed one type of coffee that was being sold a lot was ‘weasel coffee’… Weasels would be fed the coffee beans, digest it, shit it out and it would then be ground and drunk. We did try some later on in our trip and it had a rather fruity taste (from all the berries and everything else they eat) and an after taste we couldn’t put our finger on for ages until we realised that the taste was probably because it was shit. We were drinking liquid shit. Well, it’s something that can be ticked off the bucket list!
Whilst we were in the Hoi An region we decided to go on the motorbike and do the Mountain Pass that goes between Hoi An and Hue that we’d seen on Top Gear. It was incredible, so, so beautiful and peaceful. At that moment, up these mountains, taking in the views, I felt a huge rush of gratitude for being able to do this trip, take in the views and most importantly, be alive – something I never thought would happen a year or so ago. The sense of inner peace was just incredible.
We then flew down to Phu Quoc island where I worked in 2012 at Mango Bay Resort learning how to cook all the Vietnamese dishes. This resort was really where my love for Vietnamese food started. Everything is so fresh, so quick to make and so delicious. The Vietnamese don’t think abot all the fancy plating etc, they just plonk it on a plate or in a bowl and let the food do the selling. The colours and smells of all the different herbs, fruit and seafood do all the talking, they don’t need to fancy it up. The Vietnamese are big on their herbs and at every meal you will get a huge plate of mustard greens, Thai basil, mints of all varieties, coriander etc. So healthy and so good for you. It is a known fact that herbs and salad are great for your digestive system and should always be eaten at meal times to get your metabolism and digestion moving. They also stop you from feeling so bloated and leave you with a very clean taste in your mouth afterwards. Whilst on Phu Quoc we met a lovely little family who owned a pepper plantation (they saved our bacon when we had arrived with a rather useless taxi driver!). They had just picked some of their pepper and were sorting them on a wicker mat on the floor and the array of colours were spectacular – pinks, greens, black.. we tried some of the green peppercorns which were delicious but SO hot. In Vietnam they serve a small bowl with every meal which is a mix of salt and pepper with a squeeze of lime or kumquat. We left their plantation with a few of their salt/pepper mixes, some black pepper and a tub of green peppercorns in brine. Peppercorns are also great for your health, especially when you have a dodgy stomach, crush a few and stir them in to hot water with a couple of slices of fresh ginger.
Every night in Duong Dong (main town on Phu Quoc) there is the most amazing night market. You walk in one end and are greeted by loads of seafood restaurants with huge tanks of fish and shellfish that you pick out. Further down you get the ‘puddings’ – Thai ice cream swirls, jackfruit ‘nuts’ (taste like peanuts!) and Vietnamese sweets/cake/biscuit things. They then have the typical market stalls of clothes, souvenirs, trinkets (lots of pearls as they have masses of pearl farms on the island). And best of all,, the had all the street food stalls at the end where I found my favourite street food snack – Banh Trang Nuong. This snack is a piece of rice paper filled with dried shrimp, spring onions, crispy shallots, quails eggs, mayo and chilli sauce which they grill on a BBQ and fold in half to make an amazing and crispy sandwich. There were 4 or 5 different vendors all doing this one dish so I obviously had to try them all and compare – street food heaven!
We spent one of our days touring the island on a bike and the lovely Yoon from Rory’s Bar on Long Beach told us that we had to go to Khem Beach on the south of the island and try the Phu Quoc national dish, Ca Trich. Khem Beach is where all the locals go on their days off and it is stunning. One big gorgeous white beach with crystal clear water and a few shack restaurants. We tried the Ca Trich – a raw herring salad with dessicated coconut, crushed peanuts, chillies, a huge plate of salad and herbs and some sheets of rice paper to wrap it all in. Another simple, fresh and delicious dish. Great recommendation Yoon!
From Phu Quoc we took a short boat trip and rather hairy bus ride to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta to finish the trip. The hotel we stayed in was handily right next to a street that was full of street food stalls at night. One of our favourite dishes we tried is what can only be described as a Vietnamese pasty. It was a delicious, crisp pastry filled with minced beef, mushrooms and vermicelli noodles. Other dishes we tried were grilled chicken feet (great bar snack to nibble on), chicken hearts (too cartiledgy!!!), grilled squashed bread with butter, spring onions cheese, mayo and chilli sauce… I could go on with more dishes but then this post would never finish.
The trip was probably one of the best trips of my life. I think what really made a difference was being in a good headspace, sober and not hungover, and doing what I love – eating! Seeing the locals in tiny houses with huge families, selling just one product but loving their simple lives made me so grateful for what I have and living in London where so much is available to me. I can’t wait to do my next foodsploration, who knows where it will take me next.