3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

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.)

3 Fantastic Travels in Our Backyard

Savvy, seasoned travellers are beginning to realise that there’s much to discover in our backyard, and we don’t need to travel far to experience some of the most fascinating places in the world. Asia has its fair share of history, culture, scenic routes and off the beaten track gems of a find, and fabulous experiences. It’s all there waiting to be explored; just that over here, we probably need to poke around a bit more to get the information we need to plan our adventures.

Thankfully travel agencies are catching on to our increasing wanderlust and are offering some pretty off the beaten path experiences which allow us to really soak in the richness of the cultures around us.

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Eco-Excitement In Rural Vietnam
Done HCM City and Hanoi? Take a 4D/3N Northern Vietnam Off the Beaten Track trip (US$395 per person) and discover a little known part of rural Vietnam. Start off predictably in the Old Town and French Quarter of Hanoi first — it has loads of charm even if it is crawling with fellow tourists. Then be whisked off to the relatively new ecotourism destination of Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve several hours’ drive southeast of the city. The scenery here is touted to be a ‘fairyland’ with jungle-covered peaks, rice terraces, cascading waterfalls and tranquil rural settings. Accommodation is in traditional stilt houses, and meals are with resident minority ethnic Muong people. The itinerary includes Ninh Binh to see its lush green valleys and impressive karst cliffs (said to rival those of Halong Bay), being rowed through Tam Coc, known as the region’s most beautiful valley, then finish off your stay at an exclusive eco lodge to wind down.
www.sensasia.com

The Ultimate Bhutan Adventure
Another great trip in the bosom of Mother Nature is the 6-day Scenic Heli-Adventure in Bhutan with ultra-luxe accommodation in COMO Uma Paro (4 nights) and COMO Uma Punakha (2 nights). Expect to splash a whole lot of cash, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bring good hiking boots for some walking through pine forests, valleys, past farms and rice paddies;  see temples (lots of!) and lakes, even try riding a yak, and keep an eye out for Himalayan wildlife like marmots and blue sheep. The main highlights are the two helicopter rides from one hotel to the other, taking you over Bhutan’s stunning scenery and a visit to the Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Monastery — one of Bhutan’s most important pieces of architecture — which requires a two hour scenic hike. There’ll be plenty of down-time to relax in the two hotels too. It’s not cheap but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it includes all the tours, meals, transfers, literally everything…including yoga and a spa treatment.
http://www.comohotels.com/uma/bhutan/rates-and-offers/dual-destination-itineraries/scenic-heli-adventure

Indigenous Flavours in Bali
So this is not really roughing it out but it is an elegant culinary adventure by luxury resort Alila Manggis in Bali. Limited to only one party a day — be it a couple or a family — guests who have arranged for it are transported to the home of Pak Gede, a resident of Tengenan, a pre-Hindu era village in East Bali, and home of the indigenous Bali Aga people, ” believed to be descendants of the aboriginal Balinese that existed long before the Hindu-Javanese Majapahit migrated to the island”. They get to dine at Pak Gede’s beautiful, museum-like  home with high walls and separate structures for kitchen, sleeping and living areas, etc. The meal is served at a bale on a low table. Comprising Bali Aga delicacies, the seven-dish meal is cooked by his wife on over a coconut husk fire pit, with the help of the butler and a chef from Alila Manggis. Wine and champagne adds to the enjoyment of this experience even if it is does veer far off from the traditional culture of the land. Meanwhile, you get serenaded by a Balinese musician playing the rindik, a traditional bamboo instrument. Pak Gede himself is quite the artist, and specialises in woodcarving, Balinese calendar and Sanskrit writing on palm leaves, and tableware crafted from pandan leaves. His wife creates Geringsing, too — a traditional woven textile made using a special weaving technique known as double ikat.
www.alilamoments.com/manggis/happenings

3 Weekend Escapes For A Fresh Look At Asia

If you’re looking for a new place to go for a weekend escape, away from the usual resorts and destinations that everyone else heads to, pen these three new holidays down on your to-do list.Angkor Collage#1. A Private Pre-Dawn Tour of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is not exactly off the beaten track, but Anantara Angkor Resort gets you a unique view of the UNESCO Heritage temple like no other. Its Breakfast at Angkor Tour gets you special access into this stunning 9th century temple complex way before other tourists do. Start off at 4.30am from the hotel via private car or tuk-tuk for a local experience.

When you get there, a guide will escort you with flashlight in hand, into the temple grounds via a “secret back entrance” when it’s still dark. With no other tourist inside and before the sun is up, you can imagine what a mesmerizing experience that promises to be! The tour ends at the front of the temple when the sun rises — a great photo op — and the tourist hoards start streaming in. That’s when you head for your private breakfast in one of the more secluded temples nearby. There, you’ll be greeted by a personal butler waiting to serve a continental breakfast of pastries and fruits, while the guide tells you more about Siem Riep’s history and its surrounds. After breakfast, explore more temple ruins then head back to the resort. To get onto this tour, you’ll have to be a guest of the Anantara Angkor Resort of course. The tour is priced from about S$155++ and includes the English speaking guide, breakfast, a one-day ticket to the Angkor Archaeological Park and transport to and from the site.
http://angkor.anantara.com/

Alila Anji Collage

#2. Immerse in the Landscape of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’
Immerse yourself in the setting of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ in Alila Anji, the luxury resort chain Alila’s first resort in China. This new resort will open 1 June. Located in Zhejiang province in China’s first national ‘ecological county’ — which promises pristine and sustainable environment — the resort is set in the hills overlooking a lake. Designed to resemble a traditional Chinese village, Alila Anji has only 74 rooms and villas, but is also family friendly, with a kids’ club to boot.

What do you do here? Visit the Anji Grand National Bamboo Forest where ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ was filmed, visit The Lingfeng Temple dating back to AD907, spend a day at a farm house to gather local produce and enjoy a farm-to-table culinary experience, or go tea picking followed by a picnic lunch in the plantation. Kids get to see Hello Kitty Land too, and adventurers can go white water rafting. The resort also has a spa to bliss out in and if you’ve got a special occasion to celebrate, the hotel can arrange a special dining experience like dinner in the bamboo forest or by the lake jetty just for two. Nice.

The hotel is offering a special rate starting from about S$430 per night (minimum 2 nights’ stay) which gives you accommodation in the Lakeview room, daily breakfast, and one of four tour/curated experience inclusive of lunch and dinner. These four WKND Experiences include some of the activities mentioned above. This package — a very good deal by Alila’s regular pricing — is available for those booking from now until 31 August, for stays between 1 June to 31 Dec 2016.
http://www.alilahotels.com/anji

Dhara Dhevi Collage - Copy

#3. Padi Farming and Thai Culture for the Family
If you’re thinking of a family getaway, the luxury resort Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai offers a culturally rich weekend away. The highlight is a rice planting session for the family where you don traditional farmers’ clothing, hitch a ride to the rice paddies on the resident buffalo, learn about how to plant rice, and put the newfound knowledge into practice. Don’t worry, it’s just about an hour’s session, so you’re not put to much labour. But the kids will come back hopefully with newfound appreciation for the back breaking efforts by farmers who get the rice onto their dinner plates.

There’s also the craft village where you can try out basket weaving, traditional rice pounding, paper cutting and northern Thai music, cooking classes at the Dhara Dhevi Culinary Academy, and walking tours. There’s also plenty going on at the kid’s club to keep youngsters busy. Set in a century-old traditional Thai teakwood house, the club’s plethora of activities get kids experiencing the culture of Northern Thailand, such as Thai dancing, the Thai language, fan and umbrella painting, Sa paper and Lanna style flag making, even yoga and Thai boxing. The resort is offering a 4D/3N Family Getaway Package (about S$2,260++ from 1 May to 30 Sep 2016) including daily breakfast for 2 adults and 2 kids, a Thai set dinner for 2 adults and 2 kids at Le Grand Lanna, 60-minute spa session, Thai boxing or dance class for kids and a private rice planting class for the family.

http://www.dharadhevi.com/