Walking Food Tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Despite the organised chaos that prevails on its streets and walkways, Hanoi is a charming, fascinating, delightful city. I am constantly amazed by how you can cross the scooter-laden streets at a steady pace and the wall of vehicles bearing down on you — nevermind that you’re using the zebra crossing — will fan out like a swarm of swallows, then skirt and meander past you like a well-rehearsed dance, allowing you to reach the other side of the road with limbs and life intact. What’s more dangerous to me are the great vats of boiling soup stubbornly straddling the narrow walkways, with low stools and tables scattered nearby, threatening to trip you over if you so much as take your eyes off the pavement for a moment to snap a shot.

It was to these street side food stalls in the Old Quarter that we went to taste and explore on a recent trip to Hanoi. Our private tour with Hanoi Voyages included a walking food tour on our first night, led by our guide Trang Ta. It was a dizzy, three-hour trek to a number of food stalls and small restaurants – I have lost count – to taste various dishes. A plate here, and nibble there all came together nicely to form a very filling and stimulating feast.

Banh xeo, at restaurant Mr Bay Mien Tay

First, we popped in to Mr Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Bac), a buzzy little restaurant well known among the locals for its excellent banh xeo. Cooked at the front as you order, it was a sizzling crisp-edged egg pancake filled with prawns and beansprouts, eaten with fresh herbs and rolled in rice paper.

A dessert stall next door caught our eye, run by this cheerful young lady. We bought some of her rice mochi balls filled with peanuts. Sounds quite familiar indeed, but it also carried a sprinkling of coconut shreds which is a little different to how we eat it back home.

Then it was on to another stop for salad. This eatery (38 Bat Dan Road) could do with a bit of a clean up, and touch of aesthetics; but the beef jerky salad with fish sauce dressing — the only thing on the menu — which they sold was really delectable. With the jerky, there were green papaya, cucumbers, carrots, coriander and mint, beansprouts, and some peanuts which gave light, bright flavours, and crunchy textures. According to Trang, people would drop into this eatery early in the evening for a pre-dinner salad before heading home or moving on to their dinner venue.

Then it was on to Countryside Restaurant (29 Bat Dan Road) for two unusual dishes. First, fried snakehead fish with dill, beansprouts, crisp fried onions which you had to assemble yourself, wrapping it in rice paper with coriander, mint and peanuts. The fish was just nicely cooked and moist, lifted by the aromatics, resulting in a complex marriage of flavours in each mouthful, and a delightful mix of textures. The other was a juicy, hearty dish of fried frogs legs served with peppery betel leaf. It was certainly not among the usual suspects in Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely more-ish.

Snakehead fish with dill and rice noodles at Countryside Restaurant

We were to move on to a famous pho shop (49 Bat Dan Road) down the same street but the queues were ridiculously long, snaking down the road. So Trang decided to give it a miss and move us on to other options which Hanoi’s Old Quarter offered. As an alternative, she brought us to another pho shop but unfortunately, it wasn’t that great.

Our last stop made a fine finale — a well loved hole-in-the-wall dessert stall (95 Hang Bac) run by a cheerful aunty. It was packed, but we managed to find some plastic stools, squeezed them into the nearest empty spot we could find – nevermind that it was right in the middle of the entrance way — and ordered up her icy specialties. Without a table, we ate our desserts off a metal tray which we perched on our laps.

The hole in the wall dessert shop

They are quite similar to what we have at home in Singapore, but yet a little different — such as a creme caramel with black glutinous rice (like our pulut hitam) which was quite good, but I’m no fan of creme caramel in general. Surprisingly, as unexciting as the black bean soup with coconut milk sounded, it was excellent. The soy ice cream with glutinous rice was also most enjoyable. That brought us to the end of the food tour. By the time we meandered back to our hotel, it was close to 11pm.

At this point, I must give a shout out for Hanoi Voyages (pronounced with French flair – “voy-A-es”) who organised our entire four-day private tour, of which this evening was only one part. The company is run by a young staff who are pretty intuitive about what we were looking for. Beyond just taking us to these places to eat, Trang, who spoke fluent English, also filled us in on the background about the different foods, and told us about the individual eateries’ histories, and local food and cafe culture. She was also great fun to be with. Best of all, Hanoi Voyages specialises only in private tours and pride themselves for bringing guests off the beaten track, which means that for some part of your tour at least, you will be assured of a more unique Hanoi experience.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)

4 Off-The-Beaten-Track Family Adventure Holidays in Asia

The end of the year is almost here, and for those with kids, it’s time to heave a sigh of post-exam relief and turn your attention to more pleasant things like the family holiday. How about heading out into the open and soak in some sun, sea or snow? You don’t have to go far to do that.

Walk Japan has just launched the Oita Hot Spring Trail, a fully guided six day walking tour of Kysuhu through the Oita Prefecture, the mecca of onsen hotsprings. Imagine walking through mountain valleys, the foot of Mount Kuju, onto a plateau, cycling past farmhouses and fields, and reaching the sea. In the midst of that, soak in the view and in onsens, dine on fabulous meals and experience the country’s culture. Accommodation is in traditional Japanese inns with onsen baths. The trail is suitable for those ” who can walk at a gentle pace for three to four hours in comfort.” The tour is capped at 12 people, and costs JPY316,000 per person. Meeting point is in Fukuoka.
http://www.walkjapan.com/tour/oita-hot-spring

oita-hot-spring-tour-beppu_steam_cooking-copy

befunky-collage-snow

Another new Walk Japan trail is the stunning Hokkaido Snow Tour (above), a full guided eight-day, seven-night snowshoe-clad adventure of east Hokkaido. Dress warm for the landscape is peppered with powder fine snow, from empty vistas to frozen lakes and mountain views. You head to pretty remote lanscapes , starting at the fishing port of Kushiro, then “over frozen seas where fishermen huddle around ice holes; through snowy landscapes past remote farmsteads, and along cliff-tops”. You may see deer, tancho red-crested cranes and other wildlife. Every evening, stay in traditional inns, some with onsen, and dine on meals made with local ingredients literally for a local flavour. At eighth day bring you to Utoro, a small, onsen hot spring resort town on the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the tour ends. Priced from JPY498,000 per person, it includes breakfast, dinner and three lunches, snowshoe rental and baggage transfers.
http://www.walkjapan.com/tour/hokkaido-snow

 samode-safari-park-copySee history, wildlife and adventure on a luxury 11-day Tigers, Temples and The Taj trip with private tour specialist Jacada Travel. Explore Delhi for a couple of days, then head to remote luxury lodge in Bandhavgarh National Park (above)and go on safaris in this 400 square kilometres worth of wilderness with the highest density of tigers in the world. It’s also home to leopards, sloth bears, dhole (Asian wild dog), gaur Indian bison, spotted deer, etc. The trip later includes boat rides on the River Ganges and sunset and sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Not cheap, this lengthy trip – which packs in a lot — starts at around $8000 per person (minus international flights). But it includes lots of pampering , private transfers and a guide throughout.
www.jacadatravel.com

Blend a lazy resort holiday with open-jeep touring off the beaten track in Hoi An. Stay at the Anantara Hoi An Resort and head off on day tours with Active Adventure Tours to explore the area’s heritage sights and nature. How about a tour to My Son? At sunrise, the open jeep tour takes you to My Son on a less travelled route past rice paddies and the Thu Bon River delta region, first to a village market to soak in country life, then to My Son itself, the former capital of the ancient Champa Kingdom and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Breakfast is served there, then you’re free to pole around the ruins with a local guide, and take in a traditional dance. The return journey to the resort promises ” small country lanes and pretty hamlets”.

hai_van-2

If you’re even more adventurous, do the full day trip to Hai Van Pass (above). Take in a 1,000-year-old Cham tower, head up Bo Bo Hill, an important site in the American War, drive up Hai Van Pass to see its haunting landscape, then head to a pristine stretch of coastline for a picnic lunch and a paddle in the sea. The return journey gives you a good look at traditional fishing village life there. The tours promise “creative itineraries [that] investigate beyond the confines of a guidebook creative itineraries”, ” remote terrain and hidden havens, unseen by the masses”. Sounds exciting.
www.anantara.com

(Photos courtesy of Walk Japan and Anantara)