Thursday, 31 December 2015

A La Folie Hanoi: Proper French Cooking with Vietnamese Flair


They say that whether you like it or not, your children will invariably pick up some of the things you do. In my case as a child, I have found this statement largely to be true. From M, I learned the pleasure of seeking out the new and exciting in a foreign land, and from D, the joy of speaking to strangers at bars. 

Combine this, and you have a top travel tip: Visit a local watering hole early on, and ask the bartender or any of the regulars where the best restaurants, sights and attractions are. They've got the intel, so mine it for all you're worth. 

Christmas 2015 saw J and I making our way round a list of local breweries (Doing beers mainly in the Czech style) that K's friend recommended us (Thanks guys!), taking in the numerous art galleries that dot the city and touring the sights, before finding our way to a small wine store. Paying for our bottle of easy-drinking red, I asked the Frenchman (An obvious regular, he was picking up a delivery package and was on first-name basis with almost everyone at the store) at the till next to me for what he thought was the best French restaurant in Hanoi. His answer - A La Folie - was immediate, and his praise for this Vietnamese take on proper French cooking was effusive. I was sold. 

J and I quickly traipsed over to make a reservation for Christmas Dinner, and went back to our apartment to rest and freshen up, confident we would return in the next two hours. But an unexpected late afternoon rain turned our short nap into an epic sleep, and we ended up having instant noodles for Christmas instead. But that is never a hardship when you're young. 

Still, I love French cuisine. Having come so tantalizingly close only for my plans to be unexpectedly thwarted, I now wanted to dine at A La Folie more than ever. I swore we had to return. My desire bordered a little, as it were, on madness.

A cursory Google-based survey of French cuisine in Hanoi brings up mainly information on how Vietnamese food as we know it today derives a fair amount of influence from the colonial French. What the front page neglects to mention is that there remains a lively gastronomic scene adapting this cuisine for the Vietnamese palate, while still allowing the food to retain its quintessential Frenchness. 

A La Folie is a perfect example of simple but well-executed modern French bistro fare, spiced with a hint of local sensibilities, which may have something to do with the fact that it's co-owned by a Hanoian, a Frenchman, and a French-Vietnamese. Situated in a quiet street just 10 minutes from busy Hoan Kiem Lake, the restaurant is a cozy two-storey affair in the Vietnamese equivalent of a shop-house. It's casual but very charming, and we had the entire upstairs dining area to ourselves for most of lunch, which was a massive stroke of good luck. 

We settled in with an easy-drinking red and some freshly-prepared bruschetta before getting down to the serious task of perusing the menu proper. It was tough going, but I eventually managed to whittle down my choices to two appetizers and two mains, keeping my fingers crossed that there'd be room left over for dessert. 

Spoiler alert: There was, if barely. 

The pâté I ordered was a wonderfully meaty affair, and came with a heaping dollop of onion jam. Spread in a thick layer atop one of the many toasty baguette slices, it was something I could have very happily eaten as a meal on its own. But bigger and better things lay ahead.

Even today, when I mention the prawns we had at lunch, J's eyes widen with delight. They were a heady taste of summer in the wintertime, big and succulent. The dish itself was beautifully composed as well, the lovely pink hue of the prawns really popping against the avocado and tomato. 

The first of our mains, the steak was beautifully cooked, but in a meal with dishes that were truly outstanding, ultimately felt rather forgettable. Our other main on the other hand... 

I felt like duck, and picked out the rather mysterious New Year Special, which also happened to be the most expensive thing on the menu. We'd seen ducks everywhere in the countryside, and I wasn't entirely sure what was taking this dish to the next level price and taste-wise, until it appeared in front of me - a generous portion of perfectly seared duck breast topped with the single biggest piece of foie gras I'd ever seen on a plate.

Each mouthful of duck-and-foie was a meaty, oily pleasure and conjured nothing less than the feeling of sheer decadence, quite fitting as a celebration of the old year and the year ahead. 

Dessert was a deceptively light (but quite shamelessly rich) tiramisu, served in a chocolate cup. Everything on the plate was edible, down to the chocolate and coconut encrusted cookie wand, and I systematically demolished it down to the last crumb. 

It was a truly lovely meal, and we walked out so full and so happy I thought I was going to burst. The initial missing out and subsequent wait had honed my wanting to a fine point, and perhaps given me rather unrealistic expectations. But to my absolute delight it was such a wonderful afternoon at A La Folie from start to finish, and my soul was deeply satisfied. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best Day Trip from Hanoi: Driving to Trang An and Lang Co Village

Vietnam Awesome Travel Trang An - Mua Cave $80

Where are we going? How are we getting there? What will we do?

These are the three basic questions every traveller must answer. Depending on the kind of person you are, the location you're in, and your familiarity with the situation, these questions can either be the launch pad to a spectacular voyage of discovery, or a source of deep anxiety. 

Hanoi Day Tour (Ninh Binh, Vietnam)

Trang An Day Tour

There is a time and place for spontaneous adventure, the thrill of finding out you can cope during stressful situations in a foreign land, and soaring with the high of utterly unexpected discovery. This time however, I wanted to abdicate all the responsibility of having to figure things out from scratch in a foreign land, and leaving that in the highly capable hands of people who've done this before. I found Vietnam Awesome Travel on TripAdvisor, where it holds a very respectable #1 ranking in the list of Best Outdoor Activities in Hanoi, and one that we found is well-deserved indeed. 

Some adventurers bemoan over-researched and over-planned itineraries. If everything is easy, efficient, safe and predictable, then you've killed the mystery - or so that train of thought goes. But I've found that the pleasures of opting for a private guided tour run by consummate professionals are myriad and profound. Our day trip was not just glamorous in retrospect, but deeply enjoyable throughout. 

Amazing Trang An Hanoi Day Tour

Trang An Landscape Complex Rowboat Tour

Our journey North from Hanoi was remarkably smooth in contrast with the start-stop traffic we encountered on our way to Halong Bay. It wasn't a short drive by any stretch to the province of Ninh Binh, but the hours flew by thanks to Rocky, our guide for the day, who kept up a running commentary on all things Vietnamese that was at turns elucidating and amusing. 

A good guide will provide you with all the information you need to know about each sight, even an overarching background to the country you're visiting. Luckily for us, Rocky was a great guide, and at the heart of all the stories he told, was a deep love for his country and all its idiosyncrasies. A native of Hanoi, he lavished most of his praise on the North of the country - the food better, the weather more temperate, the people kinder. Perhaps by osmosis, we absorbed some of that national pride and wonder, which has translated into a lingering fondness for the places we visited. 

Best Day Tour Out of Hanoi

Day Tour North of Hanoi

An early morning rain followed us on our drive up to the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex, but when we finally reached our destination, the downpour had eased up to little more than a heavy mist. Still, Rocky wanted to make sure we were prepared for all eventualities, so when we stepped onto our rowboat, J and I were both clad in ponchos and nón lá, the conical straw hats so often seen as a symbol of the country. Nón lá is most often worn by women, but J donned his with much aplomb. 

Ninh Binh Day Tour with Transfer and Lunch

Ninh Binh is sometimes seen as the most topographically blessed region of Vietnam. Within this province lies all the stunning feature the country has to offer. From pristine coasts to soaring mountains, with romantic little villages emblematic of North Vietnam, lush rich fields and a sizeable river cutting through the landscape, it's the essence of the country, in miniature. Tràng An, Northwest of Ninh Binh, is sometimes called the inland Halong Bay, thanks to some geological quirk that bestowed it with similar karst formations. Unlike Halong Bay however, the rocks here are clustered in close proximity, and it was hard to see where one ended and another began. The creeping fog rendered the world around us even more queerly mysterious, and our little rowboat tour seemed at times like a quest to find our way around a particularly expansive maze. 

Best Hanoi Day Tour with Local Guide

North Vietnam Unique Local Tour of Trang An

People have settled around Ninh Binh and explored the complex for over 30 000 years, but its biggest claim to fame around these parts is as the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th century. At the height of the Dinh, Le and Ly dynasties, Tràng An was the site of pleasure palaces, and shrines dedicated to venerated personalities. Today, between the towering formations, you can still catch a glimpse of buildings long abandoned, the shrines and temples quiet from a lack of steady pilgrims, but still looking splendrous from afar, especially those that seem to float above the dense foliage. The lingering damp made it dangerous to venture up to any of the historic structures, so the main highlights as we wended down the river were numerous caves and grottoes, each with its own story. 

Trang An Caves and Grottoes

Trang An Natural Landscape

Trang An Inland Halong Bay

Visiting in December, we experienced it in all its moody off-season glory, free from the hoards of domestic tourists that descend on the place in the bright summer months, many of them couples wanting a dramatic backdrop for their pre-wedding pictures. It was remarkably peaceful for us. Between Rocky's bits of commentary, sometimes all we could hear was the swish of the oars as we bobbed along the water, or the splash-flap of the river birds taking wing. But our steady rower, who plies the waters when there's less to be done on her farm, was less than pleased by the lack of visitors. Without the numbers, she only gets to take her boat out every fortnight if she's lucky, as there are oarsmen aplenty in these parts. 

Vietnam Awesome Travel - Day Tours (Hanoi) TripAdvisor

Traditional Vietnamese Hat and Rowboat

Best Hanoi Travel Blog

Over the course of our two-hour jaunt along the water, talk invariably turned to food. Rocky was quick to extoll the virtues of every Vietnamese dish we had yet to try, which made us terribly hungry indeed. The sight of a pair of grazing goats inspired a further impassioned monologue on the wondrous specialties of Ninh Binh that we were to sample during lunch - less farm to table, more free-range. J and I had enjoyed a wonderfully hearty breakfast back in Hanoi, but with lunch sounded more and more tempting by the minute, we were moved to pick up our oars and pick up the pace with furious if unskilled paddling. 

Best Tours and Activities Hanoi

Trang An Sightseeing Tour

There's off-the-beaten track, and then there's the restaurant where we had lunch, a local gem hidden deep in the side roads of Ninh Binh. The feast laid before us (And it was truly a feast), showcased the highlights of the local cuisine, with a heavy emphasis on goat. 

Things that found its way to our table
- Goat hearts cooked into a thick soup and served with crispy rice.
- Goat breast seared on a sizzling hot plate. 
- Stir-fried goat, to be wrapped in rice paper and garnished with a medley of freshly harvested herbs
- Pickled baby eggplant
- Vegetable soup
- Stir-fried chicken
- Deep-fried shrimp
- Stir-fried vegetables
- Steamed local rice
- Bananas, for dessert

Ninh Binh Goat Cuisine - Goat Heart Soup and Rice Crackers

It was a spread that could have easily fed a far bigger contingent, but we tried our best. Still, Rocky was scandalized by how little rice we ate. That, I'm afraid, is the Singaporean way. Why waste stomach space on rice when there's all that delicious meat to be had? 

Ninh Binh Best Local Food

Off the beaten track gourmet travel Ninh Binh

There are two options to the Trang An tour with Vietnam Awesome Travel. One takes you to Mua Cave: 5 km from Tam Coc, it's a smallish cave that's not particularly noteworthy on its own, but boasts a stunning panorama from the peak that sits above. This involves a rather steep and arduous hour-long climb. With the weather clouding the view of the Ngo Dong River and most of the karst peaks, the trek would have been pointless. So, we headed on to option two, Lang Co Ancient Village. 

Lang Co Ancient Village

Hanoi Day Tours Off the Beaten Track

As towns go, Lang Co isn't terribly old, but it is a monument to a fair bit of Vietnam's tumultuous modern history. Built in the late 19th century by a group of tailors who worked mainly for the French colonial forces in pre-independence days, the houses in the village infused European-style architecture with Asian sensibilities. The result is some utterly unique homes. All of them are a few owners from new, as the descendants of the original owners fled during the Communist takeover for fear of being seen as French stooges. The beneficiaries of the redistribution efforts still live in the village today. The structures may be old, but the insides have been somewhat modernized, and particularly contemporary slogans exhorting children to say no to drugs adorn some of the village walls. 

Historic Villages Outside Hanoi

We had the rare opportunity to visit one of the homes in the village, and have tea with one of the occupants. I sipped a cup of strong, hot tea in that old lady's home, feet clad in her best slippers and watched her small, sweet smile as she talked about the souvenir a nephew had bought for her from Singapore. In that moment, I acutely missed my own grandmother, with whom I communicated mainly in smiles and hugs, because she never learned English, and I only picked up a smattering of Hokkien too late to speak it with her. It is curious how home rears its head even when you're miles and miles away. 

Unique Vietnamese Colonial Architecture

The road less travelled Hanoi

Lulled to slumber by an endless parade of fields and squat buildings, I awoke with a start when we were back in the chaos of Hanoi. Senses refreshed by our day away, the contrast was a welcome one. At the end of the tour, Rocky made our day even better by giving us a surprise pre-dinner treat. Armed with a map where he pointed out places in the city we had to visit, I found myself raring once again to get back in the fray that had once seemed so overwhelming. It was, quite aptly, nothing short of awesome. 

Local Home Visit Hanoi

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Best Street Food in Hanoi

Street in Old Quarter Hanoi

There are everyday adventures and moments of magic - finding a pub that serves the craft beer you like after a months-long drought, taking a different route to work and seeing parts of town you hadn't noticed before - but people travel for a very good reason. There's something about discovering something wholly different that changes the way you look at life and stays with you for years to come. In our case, it was Vietnamese traffic, that impossible, chaotic beast. 

Authentic Bun Cha Restaurant in Hanoi

No foray into Vietnamese street food comes without an up-close encounter of the country's traffic rules, or apparent lack thereof: J has a video of us crossing the road in front of one of Hanoi's poshest malls. There's a red light and a green man so it's our turn to cross, but that doesn't stop 2 cars and 6 bikes from cutting right in front of us. 

It's a very good thing then, that on our first evening here we joined the Old Quarter-based Hanoi Street Food Tour by Walking, organized by the aptly named Hanoi Street Food Tour company. They're widely considered the best operator in that category, and it's immediately apparent to us why: the tour is excellent, but most importantly, the company's guides (all born and raised in Hanoi) teach all their guests how to cross the roads without getting run over, so they live to write their glowing reviews online. 

Best Bun Cha Restaurant Old Quarter Hanoi

If there's one thing that we'll never forget about Hanoi, it's the trick our guide Cherry taught us right off the bat that ensured we wouldn't get run over each time we crossed the road: "sticky rice". The basic version works like this: stay close to each other, and when there's a gap in traffic, move forward in unison. The one we learned also involves jazz hands and muttering "sticky rice" under our breaths like a Hail Mary, which we like to believe made it all the more effective. None of us got run over, so it obviously works. 

Soup-style Bun Noodles Old Quarter Hanoi

Walking tours are always my favourite way to explore new places, and food-based adventures really elevate the entire experience. Moving from one eatery to the next, you get to see both the highlights as well as the out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the neighbourhood. Also, it's one thing to see someplace new, but eating the local cuisine really engages you more deeply: all your senses get deployed. It's also terribly interesting to track the provenance of foods you enjoy. The beef pho (phở bò) I so love, with its side plate of lime and herbs and bean sprouts and lashings of sriracha, is apparently an international variation of a southern Vietnamese rendition, of what was originally a dish from the north. The more you know.

Hanoi Street Food Papaya Salad

Vietnamese cuisine prides itself on the freshness of ingredients, and utilizes a great deal of herbs and spices to achieve the right taste and texture in a dish. Central Vietnam relishes spice, and southern Vietnamese cuisine tends toward sweetness, but here in Hanoi, and northern Vietnam more generally, there's a greater emphasis on balancing out flavours. Cherry wasted no time at all in informing us that there's a whole lot more to Vietnam's food culture than phở, and proceeded to bring us on a culinary adventure through Hanoi's buzzing street food scene, teaching us to eat like real Hanoians. 

Traffic in the Old Quarter Hanoi

Cherry herded us from one highlight to the next with a deftness that is all the more remarkable on hindsight. The number of cars and bikes and people in and around the Old Quarter is astounding on your everyday nights, but on Christmas Eve when we did our walking tour, the crowds were out in full force. The jams we saw on the road were appalling, but somehow the human traffic managed to be worse. Only 8% of Vietnamese identify as Christian, but they seem to have embraced the more capitalist celebratory aspects of Christmas with a frenetic sort of energy. I'd never seen so many people dressed up as Santa Claus before.

Banh Cuon Thit Old Quarter Hanoi

Even on a tour that stretched longer than the stated three hours, we weren't able to sample all that Hanoi had to offer, but what we did try was superb. Most of the restaurants we patronized have been around for at least a decade, specializing in particular dishes and perfecting their craft. We were ordered tasting portions everywhere we went, but even though we arrived with empty stomachs, by the midway point we felt full to bursting.

Best shrimp fritters Old Quarter Hanoi

Our first stop was for bún chả hà nội, which we'd already had for lunch with our fantastic AirBnB host Bruce earlier in the day. Cherry quickly helped us order an alternative dish. While the rest tucked into roasted fatty pork marinated with a lemongrass blend and dipped their noodles into a mix of fish sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and water, we had ours in a chicken bone broth, that had been left to simmer for a whole day. 

From there, we made our way to the papaya salad stand, where shreds of green papaya was tossed with beef, pork, a mysterious jerky and heaps of crushed peanuts, and ladled out in generous mounds. As we grazed, a chewing gum seller set up his stereo system nearby, and began belting out tunes to get people to buy his gum. We stayed long enough to watch him run away from patrolling street police and then return when they moved on to the next alley, before being whisked off for bánh cuốn thịt (Minced pork, mushrooms and onions wrapped in a rice roll) and bánh cuốn tôm (The same, with a fried egg), topped with dried shrimp and fried shallots, and eaten dipped in fish sauce with a squeeze of kumquat juice. 

Best deep fried street food Hanoi

Cherry told us that the small stools are used because Vietnamese people are small, which seems apt, but isn't the only reason. Technically, stalls operating on the pavements in Vietnam are doing so illegally. The ubiquitous low stools you see are deployed by street food vendors in case the police come by to break up supper. They're either easier to pick up and run with, or less hard to leave behind as they're less dear. But since most of the stalls in the Old Quarter and elsewhere are regularly patronized by members of law enforcement anyway, the stools are now seen as something of an indicator of quality. The closer you are to the ground, the better the food tastes! 

The Old Quarter Neighborhood of Hanoi

Our next stop was a stall selling all manner of deep fried goodness, including deep fried sour spring rolls, stuffed with fermented rice and pork. It also sold possibly our favourite dish of the evening, bánh tôm hồ tây - shrimp donuts, with a whole shrimp pressed into the middle of the dough. At this point the jet lag caught up with J, and he nearly fell asleep on the way to the alley that sold barbecued chicken wings and chicken feet, served with a sweet-sour-spicy relish.

Old Quarter Street Food Chicken Wings

Cherry managed to hail us a cab in spite of the chaos of the evening, and while we missed dessert (Vietnamese fruits and egg coffee), we definitely thought the tour had been worth every cent. We later met more Hanoians who found it a personal affront we hadn't been taken to try some of the city's other signature dishes like banana flower salad, or bánh mì, but we thought the tour was perfect as it was. 

Shopping at Hom Market Hanoi

There were other adventures for us to try on our own, and now we definitely had the courage and know-how to navigate the city. Which was why when we visited Chợ Hôm (Hom Market) the next day to buy some Vietnamese cinnamon, when the first lady we asked for direction started shouting something that sounded like "Beep! Beep!", we went in the general direction she waved at instead of running away. 

Spice shopping in Hanoi

We also learned a little something from one of our fellow tour-mates, who had developed a fondness for the dodgiest looking street donuts during his two weeks in Hanoi. We got ours from a specialist stall that fried theirs to order of course (FOOD POISONING IS NO JOKE), but he was right, they are extraordinarily delicious. 

Old Quarter Street Food Hanoi

So much of Vietnam's food has a history, yes, but they haven't been around since time immemorial. Like Singapore's chilli crab, invented only in the mid-1950s, many of Hanoi's most popular dishes are younger than you'd expect, gaining popularity and creating fad bubbles along the way. The latest craze in the Old Quarter is for a dish that comes from the south of the country - bún bò nam bộ (Southern Beef Noodles). Dozens of copycats have sprung up, but on our last night we went to the restaurant that started it all, with its pungent fish sauce, perfectly marinated slices of lean beef, smooth pickles, and heaps of  peanuts and fried shallots for extra crunch.

Bia Saigon is Vietnam's better beer

Most of the other diners were Vietnamese, but the power of TripAdvisor was palpable even here - halfway through our noodles, a group of tourists sat next to us and one placed an order for her bowl, with no beef, no fish sauce, and no peanuts, all while telling her travelling companions she "wanted something authentic, you know?" as the staff tried to figure out what to do with her bowl. It was hilarious, I nearly choked on my beer trying not to laugh. 

Best Bun Bo Nam Bo Old Quarter Hanoi

We ate so well in Vietnam, but food-wise I think my favourite memory will be of a little no-name joint, run out of the living room of a wonderfully kind lady living down the street of our second AirBnB home. Around West Lake is where most of the expats in Hanoi converge, but on the other side of the Âu Cơ are streets very infrequently visited by foreigners. J and I were down with colds, and at 6 am, this was the first place we came across that looked like it had soup. I still don't know the name of what we had, but they were the best noodles I had the whole trip, silky but with good bite. The homemade chilli sauce that came with it was so strong it cleared my nose out, so I could taste just how good the broth was. Once we made our delight known, ever so often, she'd come over and add another pork and mushroom meatball to our soup, or an extra ladle of bamboo shoots, which I loved. 

Au Co best noodles

Once you pass everything through the filters of your own life the the environment you're in, no experience is travel is really authentic, so chasing it blindly doesn't quite work. What you should hope for, are bits of travel magic that makes trips remarkable. And, well, that can be found anywhere, if you're willing to look.