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Trip Report: Northern Vietnam for Tet


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We knew it was going to be a good trip. When anyone asked us what we were doing for Tet (Lunar New Year), we told them we were going on a motorcycle trip with the Compagnie Bourlingue, through some of the northern provinces of Vietnam. Reactions varied - but always started -

"With Fredo?" (the name of the company owner). This was immediately followed by (choose one): an incredulous eye-pop; sucked-in breath and a head shake; a long sigh. Our French teacher summoned a "Fredo...oui, je lui connais...." followed by a long blank stare that I assume was accompanied by a flashback in his head.

We drove Minsks; the infamous Belo-russian motorcyles which are nick-named "the Mules of the Mountains" for their ability to get up just about anywhere. No Vietnamese person in the city would be caught dead on one; considered the ne plus ultra of peasant rides. Only foreigners are mad enough to ride them in Hanoi, where their belchy smoke is an early warning system for incoming foreigners. They're invaluable in the country, able to go down any road, climb any rutted mountain, and fixable with any material at hand - a claim proved on day 3 when our friend, Vancouver Dan, replaced his broken clutch pin with a twig.

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I called ours "the wasp" for the high whining noise it made as my husband tried to slam it into gear. I didn't drive: rather; I clung to the back pillion and spent a lot of time thinking about upcoming meals. I didn't take exhaustive photos, spending most of the time careening through sheer terror to sodden drunkeness (the hospitality of our hosts not allowing me to refuse their many cups of rice wine - even at lunch!).

The stunning hospitality of the people we stayed with humbled me and renewed my desire to explore this country more. Our itinerary called for 6 days in the mountains 150 km west of Hanoi, near the Laotian border. The places we stayed are barely on the map, and don't grace the pages of the Lonely Planet. The people we stayed with were various friends and ex-students of our guide, Fredo. In many instances, they offered us all they had, materially. The food was amazing, and made invariably in small kitchen over open fires. I hope I can present a little of what we saw.

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The first day, we drove up to meet the rest of the group, which had been travelling near the Chinese border for the three previous days. We had taken a short trip to Singapore for shopping, exposure to public transit; and good Indian food.

We shared the trip up with a junior guide, Minh, and a young British lady, who was, like every other young British lady I meet in Hanoi, vegetarian.

"You do know where we're going?" I asked

"Well, yes of course. I'm sure they'll have something for me to eat" she replied, "I'll just eat the vegetables, if I need to. Or there'll be tofu"

I quelled the urge to roll my eyes. Tofu? Where we're going, there won't be any tofu. Farm ladies in rice planting season don't have time to sit around making tofu. Or rice noodles, for that matter. Those are city foods. I also sighed for the inevitable squalling that would come when all the vegetable came fried with pork bits and fish sauce. Who are these people? Why do they ship themselves to rural Vietnam and turn their nose up at food? Where is Anthony Bourdain when I need him?

We ended up missing our first assigned lunch spot, and had to tool around a small village looking for a restaurant that would cook for us on Tet eve, at the ungodly hour of 3 o'clock in the afternoon, when Vietnamese people don't think about cooking, not even for money. Minh managed to talk a small place into cooking for us.

"Is chicken okay?" asked Minh. Chicken sounded fine, but the vegetarian requested vegetables. "Erm, yes." said Minh.

What we got were twelve whole quails fried with heads intact, brain cracked open for easy access, and water spinach fried with pork liver- the "vegetables'.

It was too dark for a photo, my regrets.

That night, we stayed in a stilt house with Dzao Quan Trang people, with whom we were to share "Tet Eve". A big party was planned. We ate on the floor, as we would in all stilt houses.

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From the bottom, clockwise,

fried pork with wood-ear mushroom; pork kebab pieces, marinated in lime, chili, sesame and black pepper; more pork and mushroom; stir fried vegetables with garlic and fish sauce; more pork; fried potatoes; in the centre - nuoc cham dipping sauce.

Rice is on the side, and served at the end of each meal with broth and chayote, "for those who do not like their rice dry," as was translated for me by Minh.

The mysterious looking bottle in the back is homemade rice wine, which displayed its own terroir as we travelled from region to region. This one had light notes of gasoline, with a finish of kerosene.

The ladies checked out my wrist girth, which, according to them, compared favourably with their legs.

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Happy New Year! The photo is blurry due to massive consumption aforementioned rice wine.

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The next morning, the stilt house looked cheerful, despite the previous night's depredations.

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Chickens here are fresh and free-range.

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Breakfast was prepared over the hearth, a very sacred place in the Vietnamese home. I forget the story exactly, but three "ghosts" live in the hearth, a woman, and her two husbands. It's a long story. Anyway, the woman prepare all of the meals here, which boggled my mind - no mod cons like fuzzy logic rice cookers here. We brought frying pans for them as part of our Tet gifts, which were received gratefully.

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Breakfast is served! Since it was Tet, we were served the traditional Banh Trung, rice cakes stuffed with green beans, then pan fried. Dipped in fish sauce, the perfect thing for a rice-wine hangover. There was also pork with onions, and fried potatoes. Banana leaves were steamed with a sticky rice paste.

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Edited by nakji (log)
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Fantastic trip! Food looks delicious!

I love it when this happens, as I am not likely to ever traipse around the Lao/Viet border. Thank you so much nakji.

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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The food looks wonderful! It's interesting to me that there are people in Vietnam still living in thatched houses -- there were only a few of those left in the poorest state of Peninsular Malaysia in 1975, with zinc roofs taking over. How far out of Hanoi did you get in the first day?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Thanks for the replies!

I love it when this happens, as I am not likely to ever traipse around the Lao/Viet border. Thank you so much nakji.

Hey, you're from Maine, I'm from Nova Scotia - how the heck did I end up traipsing around the Lao/Viet border? Life is funny!

The food looks wonderful! It's interesting to me that there are people in Vietnam still living in thatched houses -- there were only a few of those left in the poorest state of Peninsular Malaysia in 1975, with zinc roofs taking over. How far out of Hanoi did you get in the first day?

We were only about 130 km out, but that's seven hours driving on these roads. If you look at the picture, you'll see there's tin roofing underneath. I'm not sure why they still live in these houses - this set we stayed in was new, and well looked-after. It could be a combination of tradition, and government support. We saw them all over the provinces we travelled through, so its not like they're disappearing, at least up north. One thing is for sure, though, you don't have to get very far out of Hanoi to meet people who live on very little a day. But these are ethnic minority people, not Viet people, and they maintain a very traditional lifestyle - I'm not informed enough to tell you whether that's by choice or not, though.

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So the next day, we loaded everybody up, including one of the Dzao ladies, who wanted to see the world outside her village, and drove 80km to lunch. We were aiming to do more than 100 km per day, but as it was the main Tet day, we took it easy.

We saw many beautiful sceneries (as my students would say).

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This girl was herding ducks.

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We stopped for lunch at the house of some Tay ethnic people (whom I unforgivably forgot to take a photo of - sorry Kerry!). I think this was the most delicious food of the trip. Fredo told us that this family was fairly wealthy, because it was easy for families to make a living in this area.

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From the bottom right hand corner, clockwise:

Shredded pickled bamboo shoots; spring rolls (nem); boiled chicken; crunchy cucumber and carrot salad; fried chicken drumlets; banh trung; chayote soup in the back; bacon wrapped quail's eggs (genius!); spiced lake fish, shredded pork and mushrooms wrapped in cabbage leaves. That Tiger Beer bottle is filled with rice wine. In the upper left-hand corner, you can see Minh wiping his bowl a napkin, something all Vietnamese people seem to do whenever they encounter dishes in restaurants or public eating venues. They also scrub at their chopsticks with them. I think they're trying to clean them. I'm not sure what good paper towel will do in the fight against germs, but it's a pre-eating ritual I've adopted.

We lingered there for a few hours, napping and drinking warm beer. Then Fredo announced that we would be staying with a Red Dzao family in the mountain behind us. The road to their house was too steep, so we would have to walk it instead of ride the 2 km.

What a way to earn your dinner!

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These girls seemed skeptical that I would make it.

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But I did! I didn't snap a picture of dinner - I think it was roast pork and cabbage with garlic, as I was too busy dodging the drinking. I was ill, as they had lead us through the pitch-black rice paddies by the light of flaming torches to another stilt house, where they performed a tri-annual blessing ceremony for the fields - we drank a lot of rice wine here - rice bowls full - as toasts, which I couldn't refuse. But all that moonshine on an empty stomach, coupled with the 2km hike up the side of the mountain made me more interested in sleep than in food. The Red Dzao people are matriarchal, so the women led the drinking. The rice wine here had me seriously worried I would go blind.

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The next morning, we had instant noodles with a fried egg on top for breakfast. If you've never tried this as a hangover cure, I strongly recommend it. Walking back down the mountain in the morning air was restorative, as well.

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Day three, after our 2km hike back to our bikes, we were going to Phu Yen. Although we would stay this night in a hotel, we were having dinner with Black Thai people. Our distance to cover was 230 km, but mostly on highways. Nevertheless, we were forecasting 7 hours of driving.

The day started inauspiciously, when we saw a terrible crash. Three Honda Waves (small scooters used to transport almost everything in Vietnam - including families of four or more) collided dramatically in front of us, taking the front wheels off of two of the bikes. Women and children were in the ditch, men were limping across the road - blood was everywhere. Sadly, there was nothing we could do. Before we could help, bodies were dragged off the road, irrespective of head or spinal injuries. In Vietnam, it's not the accident that kills you - it's the medical care (or lack of) that you get after. It seemed to be serious, but not fatal, and surprisingly, an ambulance screamed by later as we were gassing up several km down the road. If there was anything I could change about Vietnam, it would be to have the government enforce existing helmet laws, educate people on the necessity of wearing them; and subsidise helmet purchase for poorer families.

Shaken, we continued on. We passed through some glorious mountain passes and stopped for lunch in Yen Bai.

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From the bottom, clockwise:

Lake fish fried with spices; pickled onions; barbecued pork ribs; steamed veg; and stir-fried pork with onions. Chili-lime dip and shrimp sauce in the middle. Serv ed later and not photographed was fried preserved pork (nem chua ran) which we devoured - nothing like deep-fried pork fat! We got a break from rice wine at lunch for once.

We passed through some beautiful territory, with many ethnic minorities - I snapped a pic of this Hmong woman as we drove by.

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We had one dramatic mountain pass to conquer before finishing - we got to the top, only to find the road down washed away. Rains had destroyed it three months previously. We descended instead on a dirt track that locals had worn through. I clung to the back of Minh, who switched me off my husband's bike, as he was worried about going down on the dirt roads.

We made it safe! Yay Minh!

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That night, we dined with Black Thai people. We were now in Son La province, which according to Vancouver Dan's students (upper management from the Ministry of Customs and Excise) was "famous for its heroin." How can you not be excited about that? Fredo told us that the family we would be having dinner with was a lot poorer than previous families we had met, as it was harder to make a living in Son La without growing opium.

Although their stilt house was very worn, and clearly shabbier than many of the others, they put on a magnificent feast. They very smoothest of rice wine was offered, and they had roasted several whole goats in anticipation of our arrival. All parts of the goat were laid out for consumption, but I must admit, my favourite was the marinated kebabs. We also got parcels of sticky rice to go along with it, which I love.

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We drank a lot here, so much so that Minh couldn't drive back. Fortunately the supply bus driver that followed us drank coca-cola the whole night.

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When we were chatting with the family, I asked Vancouver Dan to ask them how they met Fredo (I don't speak Vietnamese). He began to translate, "It all started when one of Fredo's students met him in Hanoi and asked him to come here and eat a 80 kilo pig..." I never got the end of the story, as we were called away to do more toasting.

You must drink at least three shots for hospitality's sake, but anything drunk after that is an indication you plan to drink yourself into a stupor. Curiously, the three shots rule coincides with the number you need to drink before you can get over the taste of it. Coincidence?

A tribute to the grain.

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I'm grateful that in Malay houses, I only had to drink tea! :biggrin:

The vietnamese tea is almost as painful as the rice wine. You could strip paint with it.

More fabulous pictures. I'd dearly love to enjoy those views again, though I don't miss the heart stopping trips down the mountainsides with no guard rails. And the accidents - you really do worry what would become of you if you were involved in one out in the provinces.

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Nakji: This is a pleasant but unexpected surprise – I thought you were traveling south down the coast. Wow, what a trip. I have to echo johnnyd – thank you so much for showing us a part of the world that I am unlikely to see in person. Your sense of adventure is rivaled only by your sense of humor, and the pictures do a wonderful job of capturing the ambience.

The food that you were served has been absolutely fascinating, delicious, and often unexpected (chayote, for example – I often do a quick Mexican chayote stir-fry with SE Asian dinners). The picture of the skeptical girls is priceless. :laugh:

The “lake fish fried with spices” looks especially good. Can you guess how they made it and what spices they used?

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Chayote is huugggggeee in Northern Vietnam. It's considered "clean", as it doesn't grow in soil, but is grown on trellises. They grow a lot of it in the mountains near Sapa. If you want to serve it like they do here, boil or steam it, then serve plain with ground roasted rice powder for dipping. Alternatively, you can serve it with chili/lime/salt/pepper dip. Both are great.

I'm not sure what was on the lake fish - I mean, I'm assuming it was lake fish, as we were several hundred km from the coast, and there's not exactly what you'd call "distribution" here. Actually, now that I think about it, I think the fish are probably raised in the rice fields. Anyway, I'm not sure what exactly was on it. To be honest, I'm not even sure I could make a guess. It was like a dry rub, and it was red, and it had obvious traces of pounded herbs and spices. Let me check at work, and I'll see what I can find out.

Okay, the next day we went to Mai Chau, which is more touristy than the other places we'd visited thus far. It was a welcome break for us, as we got fresh coffee and banana pancakes for breakfast. Hallelujah! That night, though, on our way there, we got separated from our group and ended up heading 15 km past the village, towards the Laos border. We only stopped when we ran out of gas, thinking we had fallen too far behind our group. Fortunately, Michel, one of our group members was with us, and gave us some gas. We proceeded to the next village to fill up. There, we asked for directions to our guesthouse, only to be told it was 15 km behind us! Of course, our cellphones had no coverage, but before we could panic, a woman came running out of the shop across the street from the gas station, shouting "Muscova! Muscova!". Turns out she was fluent in Russian, having been sent there as a labourer in the eighties. Of course, the three of us, having only English, French and Flemish between us (doesn't it always end up that way?) (Michel being Belgian), we communicated in hand signals. She dragged us across the road, into her home, where before we could count to ten, she had her husband's cellphone out, dialing our guide's number. God only knows who her carrier was, but I plan to switch before my next bike trip! Anyway, once we'd assured our guides we weren't dead in a ditch somewhere, and they had been dispatched by Fredo to retrieve us, the Moscow photos came out, along with the family's Tet candy and cookie selection, mounds of fresh bananas, and big tubes of sugar cane. She wouldn't rest until we had a banana in one hand and some sugar cane in the other. Michel turned helplessly to me and asked, "How do I eat this?", and if you've ever seen sugarcane, you'll know what he meant. "Just crunch and suck on it until it isn't sweet anymore, and then try to ditch the pulp discreetly." I replied. I was eying a pile of watermelon seeds for just such a purpose. She guided us through her Russian journey, proudly showing us all of the photos, some of which featured the christmas tree which was now standing in their living room, presumably raised for Tet.

"It's a different mentality, isn't it?" Michel marvelled. "These people who have nothing - they'll give you everything they have!"

Just then, Minh and Ha roared up on bikes to drag us back, but addresses were exchanged and photos were taken to be sent back in thanks.

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That night we had a delicious dinner, featuring more nem.

These are unlike the spring rolls I ate growing up, which had much different tasting wrappers. These are translucent, light, and melt in your mouth.

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We also had thin-fried pork filet, with sesame seeds in the coating. These are served with chili sauce - tuong ot - which I cunningly call ot sauce, ot being the word for chili. Killer, right?

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There was more boiled chicken and fried cabbage with garlic, but my favourite dish was this cucumber salad with pineapple and lime-cilantro dressing. I could eat this everyday of my life and be happy.

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That night, we saw traditional dancing and drank (no! how is it possible?!) yet more rice wine.

Mai chau has a lot of rice paddies between the mountains. We saw everyone out in the fields, as it was planting season. Everything is done by hand. Minh told me that "..one grain of rice is equal to eight drops of sweat."

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The next day, we drove into a nature reserve for our last night. It was 20 km of off-roading, and took us almost three hours to complete.

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The track was so rough, both Peter and I were thrown off at one point, and I got a wretched tailpipe burn through my jeans. I've still got it, as a matter of fact. They're so common here, they're nicknamed a "Vietnam visa" by local ex-pats. We travelled up the side of one mountain, through many small villages. Of course, it had no guard rail, and the valley was several hundred metres below us. As our friend said, "If you have to dump it, dump to the right." Some parts were so steep, pillion riders had to get off and walk. It was exhilarating.

We stopped for a pack lunch that had been prepared for us that morning at our guesthouse in Mai Chau. I have no idea how they had the time to make up thirty of these, considering I was up with them when the roosters started crowing (no, really), and watched them make us all breakfast as well. The lunch, entirely packed in banana leaves (and then superfluously cased in small pink plastic bags) consisted of a grilled marinated pork kebab (succulent), sticky rice cake, a duck egg, a cucumber, an orange, and two bananas. Small plates of MSG and pepper were passed around for egg and cucumber dipping.

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We descended into a hidden mountain valley, and into a small village that was out of some Asian version of Tolkien. Everything was hand-hewn from wood, and there were even flour mills that were run by water - bamboo poles siphoned water off the stream, into a see-saw, with a bucket on one end, and a hammer on the other, which pounded a bowl of rice into flour. When the bucket filled with water, it would sink and dump the water out. Then when it was empty, it would fly up, send the hammer into the rice. Engineering!

We rolled into the village, and up to a optimistically-signed "Eco-tourism Resort". Considering the effort it took to get there, I'm not sure tour buses will be pulling up any time soon. The next morning, for breakfast, I watched the matriarch cook 20 banana pancakes crouched next to a fry-pan over an open flame - her only tool, a pair of mis-matched bamboo chopsticks. Incredible women.

There was no power, so I didn't get a shot of dinner, but that night, after we ate, I got a shot of the other traditional liquor we drank (a lot of). Ruou Can - The jug holds lightly fermented corn liquor - the beginnings of bourbon, I guess? It's drunk through thin bamboo straws for reasons I never found out.

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The next day, we drove back out of the valley, had lunch in Mai Chau, and then drove back to Hanoi.

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Where we immediately had bacon and cheeseburgers at the R&R Tavern.

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what a wonderful adventure!!!! I love that for a vacation you decided to visit other people's homes and share their traditions for lunar new year. Do you have a recipe for that pineapple and cucumber salad with the lime cilantro dressing? It sounds absolutely heavenly and I would love to make it

BEARS, BEETS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
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Yeah, I tried to make it last night to go with a red curry. Basically, I sliced up some cucumber and pineapple - I think, one small pineapple and two small cucumbers. For the dressing I mixed the juice of two limes, two tbsp of rice vinegar, two tbsp. of sugar, 1 tbsp of fish sauce and about a 1/4 cup water. If I did it again, I think I would ditch the vinegar and make it up with lime juice. Or you could just dress it with Nuoc Cham, I think, and it would be good. I think adding some thinly sliced red chili (gochu) would be nice as well.

It's lovely and fresh.

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I used a bunch of cilantro from the street - maybe a quarter cup - chopped. The cilantro here grows with dill twined around it, so there was a bit of dill in there, too - about a teaspoon chopped. No mint, although I'm sure it wouldn't be bad if it were in there.

Let me know how it turns out!

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Thank you for the incredible report and photos, nakji. This ranks right up there with some of the best trip reports on the eGullet forums!

I also can't wait to try the cucumber-pineapple salad. It sounds like it would be great with the lime-herb-fish sauce dressing.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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