Veni, Vidi, Eat-i: Report on Vietnam, Lao, Seoul
I returned recently from a two week trip to Vietnam, Lao (specifically Luang Prabang) and Seoul (a 12 hour layover, enough for breakfast and lunch). Below is a report on the food. Though I ate a lot of street food, I did not note the locations, so I reviewed only places to which I could direct you.
Top three highlights: cooking class at Tamarind, mandoo in Seoul, lime sherbet in Hue (who knew?). For a longer report, read on...
Here I spent the bulk of the trip. Overall, I found some good food, but wasn't as bowled over as I was on a trip to China last year. The comparison between cities of a very different size in a different country seems unfair, but I definitely felt that I had more explosively wonderful food in greater Shanghai and Beijing than throughout Vietnam. Also, we booked a couple of tours within the country (up to Sa Pa and on a boat in Ha Long Bay) that came with meals. All of this food was of the hotel variety: fancy, bland Western-style dishes I would not care to repeat, so that may account for part of the disappointment.
Best meal was bun cha Ha Noi at a little shop at 47C Mai Hac De. The cooks squat on the steps outside, frying up the spring rolls and grilling the little meat patties. You order there and the food is brought in to you--more comfortable than the omnipresent plastic stools on the sidewalks, and cooler if the sun is out.
That stop was part of a street food tour with Hidden Hanoi. I had read a review of another guided tour by an expat (can't remember her name), but when I checked her website, she was no longer offering tours. I am comfortable eating on the streets and ordering on my own; I signed up for the tour because I wanted explanations of unfamiliar food, expected I'd try several dishes I wouldn't ferret out on my own and be directed to exceptional dishes or vendors. The tour included the one stop for bun cha Ha Noi, then a walk through the market at Pho Hue (cross Pho Tran Nhan Tong) for the rest of the 90 minutes. We tried no food other than the bun cha. The tour guide was polite and had great English, but overall the tour was a disappointment, and at $20 per person (there were two of us), didn't seem like a good value.
Tandoor was good (but not spicy enough) Indian in the Old Quarter. Excellent naan and samosas, good paneer. My friend reported better-than-average chicken tikka masala, though I didn't try it.
Other than Hidden Hanoi, our only other tour book stop was Cha Ca Va Long, of which I've read mixed reviews on this board. I liked it--the fish was good quality, cooked at your table on a plug-in hot plate. Spicy, herbal, fresh. The other guests the day we visited were all Vietnamese. Everything was on the up and up, except the six week old kitten chained outside on a stool (because...cats like fish?). The whole time I sat eating it was looking at me and meowing plaintively.
La Carambole was attached to our hotel, so we stopped in for dinner our one night in town and ate one of the well-priced, multi-course Hue-style imperial feasts. Owners are a Frenchman and his Vietnamese wife; both the Western and Eastern dishes on the menu were prepared with care and precision, and the lime sherbet was one of the culinary highlights of the trip. Definitely a travelers stop, not for locals, but the food was very good and a good value.
Tried the local white rose dish at several places, but I liked it best at Dung, thanks to this rec (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/268462). The texture was just perfect: a bit chewy, not too sticky. Also great cau lau, with lovely flavor to the wheat noodles. Not a fancy place, but great chow.
Cargo and Morning Glory are owned by the same Hoi An entrepeneur, Trinh Viem Dy. Morning Glory serves beautifully prepared, traditional street food dishes in a pretty, airy space. Cargo is Morning Glory's cosmopolitan older sister--a San Francisco to Morning Glory's San Mateo, in Bay Area terms. The traditional Vietnamese dishes are the same at each, but more expensive at Cargo, so unless you want the (admittedly gorgeous) river-side view on the terrace at Cargo, stick with Morning Glory. Great noodles, spring rolls, very good cau lau (not as great as Dung, and at probably double the price).
Tamarind. Where do I begin? We stopped in for lunch to this restaurant, owned by an Australian expat and her Laotian husband. On the menu we read they offered cooking classes, and inquired if one would be available the next day. Though one wasn't scheduled, the owner said she'd look into it and later called our hotel to confirm she rejiggered the schedule to make it possible. The class was, by far, the highlight of the trip--not the culinary highlight, The Highlight, capital "t," capital "h." For about $20, we drove by tuktuk out to a locals market at the edge of town, where the tour was led by Joy, the Laotian co-owner, who gave extensive explanations and samples like fresh hops to chew on. Then we repaired to a riverside hut where we cooked a multi-course meal in the traditional manner, crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle, slicing through a young lemongrass stalk to make a fragrant net in which to fry pulverized chicken with coriander and kaffir lime, toasting balls of sticky rice over an open coal fire. Everything about the experience was exceptional, not the least being the food. Go to Lao. Sign up for a class at Tamarind. Why are you still reading this?
Also exceptional in Lao: the fruit shakes. Seems like fruit shakes were on nearly every menu in Lao and Vietnam, but the flavors in Lao were more vibrant, and the texture thicker, perhaps because there was some kind of starchy additive. I especially liked the mixed fruit shake at the stand directly across from my hotel (Sala Prabang).
Myeongdong Kyoja. This restaurant features only four dishes on the menu; to drink, you get a cup of water. When you are seated (note: expect a line of people who at least seem like locals), a waitress will stop by to find out which of the four dishes you require, then she'll immediately hand over a pre-printed bill to pay in advance. We ordered kalguksu (chicken soup), mandoo (steamed pork dumplings), and another noodle dish with a name I can't find--green noodles. I will dream of the mandoo for years to come. Like xiaolongbao, with a much larger, porkier meatball and less delicate skin. Exceptional, spicy and refillable kimchee free of charge. 21,000 Korean Yuan for a very filling meal for two. Gratitude and chow karma to kleyoh for a post that helped me find my sea legs for a short visit in Seoul.
That's all. If you have any non-chow, trip-related questions, you are welcome to email me at the address in my profile. I was happy to visit, explore and eat. Now I am happy to be at home, where I need never carry balled-up toilet paper in my purse.