Go on, say it: Vietnamese cuisine. Just thinking of it makes you feel good. Fresh herbs, spices, fragrant aromatics and the ubiquitous fish sauce – nuoc cham – can end up in a pot of pho or wrapped into a cha gio (spring roll).
Ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass; everything from garlic chive leaves to the complexity of a perilla leaf with its green top and purplish underside and curious hints of lemon, licorice and mint.
In the south, in the sprawling Mekong Delta, a labyrinth of irrigation canals and floating markets, it’s coconut candy. Known locally as keo dua, it’s made from mixing malt and coconut milk which, when thickened, is put over a wooden mould then covered with coconut oil before being cut into mouth-watering, bite-sized pieces.
Coconuts are best picked when they’re turning dry, guaranteeing a greasy, sweet milk. And you’re never far away from one of the delta’s coconut candy workshops where you can eat it while it’s still warm! Exotic variations include candies flavoured with chocolate, pandanus leaves, or even the much-maligned durian.
The riverside market in the ancient trading port of Hoi An, along the banks of Thu Bon river on the central Vietnam coastline, is a heady mix of visitors and merchants where you can be as conservative or adventurous as your tastebuds can handle.
If it’s adventure you’re seeking, munch on 21-day-old duck embryos – balut – either boiled or steamed and eaten directly from the shell.
Halong Bay serves up a seafood smorgasbord, with everything from grilled oysters and lemon to roasted crab and tamarind to the visually challenging jellyfish salad, served with carrot, onion, chilli, lime, coriander and lotus roots. The more distractions the better, I thought!
CARVED FRUIT AND VEGETABLES
In Halong Bay, you’ll also likely see your cooks indulge in the art of fruit and vegetable carving, including the mesmerising creation of a “carrot net”, the carving of a single carrot in such a way that it transforms into an expandable, decorative one-piece net, not unlike a fishing net.
The carving of fruit and vegetables is a tradition that goes back centuries to the era of Vietnamese royalty and famed royal banquets. Thankfully, nowadays feasts once a defining characteristic of the noble class are available in glorious abundance.