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.)

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3 Stunning Hidden-Gems in Southeast Asia You Must Go To For The Weekend

Every so often, I write about places to go and beautiful hotels to chill in. Some of these I wish I could go but for want of time (the daughter’s doing her IB this year, so it’s full out work till November!). So I only get to live vicariously through gorgeous images of gorgeous hotels and resorts. Here are a couple of absolutely stunning hidden gems to spend a weekend in.

As for me, for now, I can only write and sigh wistfully…. Here goes.

Round up the family and check into Villa Belong Dua in the Bali countryside. This rustic, tropical retreat done in traditional Balinese style is family friendly, with a 20m pool in a lush, mature garden, two bedrooms and airy pavilions set around a compound. Take a swim, doze off in the bale, sip cocktails with a good book, and tuck into great homemade meals by the resident chef. With the villa set in the village of Seseh, you can take leisurely strolls to the beach, visit the Tanah Lot temple at sunrise, cycle through padi fields (the villa has bikes), and Seminyak is less than 30 mins’ drive away. A full staff including three butlers, manager, security guards at night, are on hand to see to everything you need. Prices are decent: from US$290 to US$475 per night for the entire villa. Wifi and all the techno mod-cons are in place.
More details at http://www.villabelongdua.com

 

Villa Samadhi, just newly opened in Singapore‘s lush, historical Labrador Park is a stunning colonial military garrison now turned into a beautiful 20-room boutique hotel. Long ago, high level British military personnel lived here. Now, it’s a place to unwind, and explore the surrounding nature reserve park with the kids with its hidden tunnels built over a century ago, and machine gun posts – relics from the colonial era — or walk the beach and look (don’t touch!) at the coral. Have afternoon tea or evening cocktails in the Library, then head to Tamarind Hill, the hotel’s Thai restaurant for more libations and great food. For locals, this makes a great staycation, and for out-of-towners, this is a unique destination hotel that gives you a different sense of Singapore, with the MRT just a five-minute walk away. Bookings for stays until 30 April get 20% off best available rates, daily brekkie and evening cocktails, plus cognac, Asian snacks and chocolate at turndown. Nice.
http://www.villasamadhi.com.sg

 

There’s more historical luxury and nostalgia to soak up at The Majestic Hotel in UNESCO heritage town Malacca with its rich Portuguese, Dutch, Peranakan, Kristang culture. The hotel itself, once dilapidated, has been gloriously refurbished by eponymous YTL Group. (The house itself was once the mansion of a rich merchant, who died just two years after he moved in.) The original Victorian tiles and teakwood finishings have been retained and the rest of the hotel stunningly restored, soaked in nostalgic luxury. Think elegant silks, clawfoot baths and four poster beds. It’s main restaurant is Melba at the Mansion, helmed by chef Melba Nunis who serves up rare heritage Kristang cuisine; there’s also The Bar at the Mansion with whiskies and cocktails served in a colonial plantation setting. This is the place to relax, slow down and soak in the heritage. We like.
http://www.majesticmalacca.com

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/