Floating islands, soy sauce and free beer.

We almost didn't make it to Vietnam. A couple of issues with visas, tickets to Australia and a mad dash towards the plane moments before it flew almost caused us grief but we managed to make it on board the flight to Hanoi. Another confusing currency change to the Vietnamese dong and another astonishing change in the country I visited five years ago. When I came here last the city looked like it was recovering from an earthquake, with cracked roads, potholes and paving slabs that stuck out of the ground like broken biscuits, inhabited with more mopeds than people. It has certainly changed now. OK, it's not Paris, but it has the same charm, with the colonial buildings overgrown with vegetation and fruit shedding over the cobbled sidewalks. There are brand new cars mixed in with the moped mayhem, the roads are drivable and there are modern looking shops selling everything we have in the western world.

 

We arrived in our hostel, run by the most hospitable hostel owners you could imagine, and while we waited to be checked in we were told it was happy hour, to which we replied,  “OK, how much”...  No no, it was free for 3 hours… Dave was ecstatic, I mean it was disgusting and god knows what was in it, but it was free, and to travellers that’s a good thing. When the morning came we set out for exploration and of course the Vietnamese iconic dish pho. We scoured Hanoi to find the most rustic back alley, with several women sorting through various herbs, vats of boiling broth, hot oil and mounds of white noodles. We ordered the lot and it was delicious. However, apparently there is a way of eating it and well, Dave and Joe got it wrong… NEVER put soy sauce on the noodles, if you want to avoid the wrath of an elderly Vietnamese woman. Add the noodles to the broth, rip your herbs in, THEN add the soy and other condiments!

One of the main things that bought me back to Vietnam wasn't just the food but the scenery. Halong Bay is one of the most breath-taking places you can visit. We took ourselves away for a couple of nights on one of these floating islands with no contact to the outside world and thankfully missed the US election. We then spent 15 hours on a sleeper bus down to the beautiful town of Hoi’An. We had lunch in the market hall next to the river, where you’re more or less attacked on entry for your custom. Various versions of pho are available, pigs’ trotters, tripe and bones were some the more adventurous ingredients of the soups, but we were there for the spring rolls and the rice pancakes with dried shrimp. We had pho as well of course - it would be rude not to. We were hungry and had a long day ahead of us as we had rented motorbikes to nip along the beach, probably the most dangerous thing you can do in Vietnam as the road safety advice is to just hope that the other person will stop. First beach of our trip and bellies full of the local delicacies our work was done, and so onto Nha Trang.

 

We arrived early, too early. We found one of the only cafes that was open and had a western breakfast. One of the worst thing I've eaten since being here but it felt necessary after two months of noodles. I remember Nha Trang being a kind of Russian and Chinese version of the Costa del Sol, complete with its own theme park “Vin Pearl Land”. But once again a completely different experience. OK, Vin Pearl Land was still a very tacky theme park and was still strangely enjoyable, but we had quite a cultural experience with temples and waterfalls this time. Could you say that the core of this place was westernised? No. It was full of Russian and Chinese tourists and a few backpackers, somewhat influenced by a modern world, but still not quite part of it. 

On to Ho Chi Minh City as it's now called, or Saigon... I'm not sure if you would offend a Vietnamese by saying the latter but we didn't dare. The obligatory visit to the War Museum will chill you to the bone and give you an untold respect for these people. One of the sad things I noticed about the change that has taken place in the last few years was there were fewer independent food stalls in the streets. I was expecting angry old ladies, like in Hanoi, serving the best thing we were going to eat here, but they were nowhere to be seen. I caught up with my step-sister who had been living here for the past four years, who explained they've been cleared out and forced out of the streets to make way for more viable businesses. However, she did mention if you look hard enough you will find them. The next morning, we went on another hunt for pho and the incredible Vietnamese coffee, and down a dark alley with plastic chairs and tables we found two women who purposefully shoed off a couple of locals to different seats to accommodate us and plonked down what we had been looking for during the whole trip. The euphoric pho bo filled us more effectively than Popeye with spinach, with the addition of the coffee woman's talents we were satisfyingly beaming. Iced coffee is unmissable, this lady in particular spent the entirety of our breakfast brewing this black treacle-like coffee substance into various sized bottles. When ordered mixed with ice and condensed milk sure is nothing short of nirvana, especially for someone who likes it bitter.

 

Vietnam done, we were onto somewhere slightly more permanent and, well, very exciting. Dave and I bid farewell to Joey, who was on his way to Kuala Lampur, while we began our 20 hour journey to Melbourne which in my mind is the most interesting place for food at the moment. Time for a change!