Through my eyes: Hoi An riverside, Vietnam

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Hoi An’s riverside is where the action is, day and night, and it’s where you should be staying when you visit.

By day, its colourful – like a box of crayons exploded all over the walls and the streets and the people and the food. It’s the sounds of laughing and the smells of fresh food cooking. It’s multi-coloured flowers, old, sinewy, strong women carting baskets of fruit and little kids waving as you walk past. It’s a small down with the biggest heart you could imagine.

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By night, Hoi An’s riverside really comes into its own. Everything is lit up – its like the colours are kicked up a notch with the bright market style stalls and shops, and the lanterns (ohh the lanterns…) are like beacons in the night. Every night is a street market; great bargains on everything from local handicrafts to leather goods (I snagged a huge, almost Country Road-style leather travel carry-on bag for only AUD$75.00!), and the food stalls are phenomenal, too – who could possible say no to a fresh donut filled with freshly shaved coconut for 50 cents?!

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Hoi An’s riverside takes on such different personalities by day and night, it’s hard to stop wandering the surrounding streets. And it never feels unsafe, even at night. It’s one of the most beautiful areas in any city I’ve ever visited to just walk through, to just BE in.

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Eat here: Mango Rooms, Hoi An, Vietnam

Mango Rooms
111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An, Vietnam
http://www.mangorooms.com/

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After a very long morning in the very hot sun in the perfectly beautiful surrounds of the My Son Sanctuary, it was finally lunch time. The thing you have to understand about Sib and I is that we love food. Like, really love food. As in, before we went to bed the night before the My Son tour, we spent some time researching the food we could eat the following day.

After a thorough investigation of the #hoian hashtag on Instagram, we had hyped ourselves up for lunch at Mango Rooms.

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Sitting on the Hoi An riverside, Mango Rooms is a gorgeous and insanely bright establishment, with one hell of a reputation for incredible food and magnificent cocktails. The chef and grand poobah, Duc Tran, was born in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and travelled around the world, reaching Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan, and America. His food is beautifully presented and brightly coloured, with gorgeous flavour combinations that have been influenced by his travels and the skills he’s learnt on the road.

We (being the good food addicts we are) may have studied the menu a little the night before, so we kinda knew what we were after. Well, for cocktails anyway. Ice cold and full of fresh fruit, these were the best cocktails I have EVER had.

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After a few minutes of “can’t we order everything?!” we settled on a plate of fresh mango & prawn rice paper rolls to share to start with, and they were something special. They may be the best we’ve ever had, actually. Fresh mango is a thing of beauty, but add it to fresh herbs and prawns and wrap it up in fresh rice paper is even better. Throw in the tastiest peanut dipping sauce on the side, and you have two VERY happy young ladies.

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Next up, we got a few salads. We’d heard they were pretty amazing here, and fresh, cold salads were exactly what we felt like after the hours we’d spent in the hot sun earlier. I went with the Tropical Lush salad – fresh greens, herbs, and mustard sprouts, orange slices, watermelon, topped with seared tuna served with orange ginger soy dressing. It was perfect – cold, fresh fruit, super fresh tuna, and the dressing was remarkable.

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Sib went with the Mango Delight – fresh greens, herbs and strips of mango along with vermicelli topped with grilled chicken breast and served with zesty soy-lime sauce. SOO good – the chicken was white and tender and the dressing, again, was flawless.

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And of course, dessert. Can’t finish up without it. A plate of the Mango Tango to share, thanks – sweet sticky rice and fresh mango topped with coconut sauce and roasted peanuts. Not really much that needs to be said about this; if you followed my adventures in Thailand earlier this year here and here, you’d know that I am always prepared to eat my weight in coconut sticky rice, particularly when it’s furnished with fresh mango. The addition of peanuts made this quite distinctive from the Thai variety, and absolutely delightful.

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It should also be noted that while eating the best food with one of the most magnificent views, we also had some great service too – the staff at Mango Rooms were lovely, friendly and more than happy to help us out. It was a truly wonderful experience – to be able to just sit back with my best friend in this rainbow explosion of a restaurant, watching the river and foot traffic pass by the window we were seated at, eating perfectly balanced plates of beautifully presented food was a pretty awesome way to pass the lunch break 🙂

My Son Sanctuary, Hoi An, Vietnam

My Son Sanctuary
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/949

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After seeing some stunning photos of it, Sib & I knew we needed to see the ruins at My Son, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My Son, dated from the 4th to 13th centuries AD, is the former capital of the Champa Kingdom. Set in stunning green, mountain surrounds in the Quang Nam Province near Hoi An, it houses the remains of the Cham temple towers.

The Cham people came from Indian origins, and were renowned for their unique building techniques; the towers have been constructed, as our guide explained, without any use of binding agent or mortar, simply brick against brick.

Enough of the history lesson now though – here’s the beautiful space we had the privilege of wandering around for the morning.

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Eat here: Bale Well, Hoi An, Vietnam

Bale Well
45 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An

So, we were sitting in our beds after a long day of travelling, and Sib (I call my baby sister Sib or Sibba – she’s my sibling) whipped out her iPad to hunt down some Hoi An food porn on Instagram while I read my book. It wasn’t long before I was distracted by “oohs” and “aahs” and “oh my GODs” coming from the other bed. I finally gave in and joined her on her bed to see what the excitement was all about. It was Bale Well.

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Down (another) dodgy looking alley, Instagram reports from fellow travelling foodies indicated that $5.00 would get you an all-you-can-eat Vietnamese street food feast. That’s all the info we needed to convince us we should visit.

The following night, we whipped out the map and started walking. We really didn’t have much of a clue where we were going to be honest, but we found the general area the alley was meant to be in. Then we got into a bit of trouble. We wandered for a while, up and down streets, hoping for the best. Eventually we looked up and saw a tiny blue sign with an arrow – 100m that way, apparently. Off we went! We kept going, with me counting out my steps to try to measure it. We bumped into another sign with another arrow – 20m more. Ok, no worries. Followed the sign down another smaller, darker, dicier alley, and promptly wound up… in someone’s backyard. Hmmm.

The little old man sitting there looked at us and smirked a little. “Bale Well?” Um yes…. where?! Pointed back the same way we came from. Great. We backtracked, got to the same 20m this way sign, looked right (the way we came from) and saw another house. Looked left and spotted another tiny blue sign. The 20m arrow was pointing the wrong way. We kept walking, and eventually stumbled on this magical place. Bale Well.

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We found an empty table for two and took our seats as a purple t-shirt clad woman descended upon us. “Drink?” Yes thanks, 2 bottles of water. That was about the extent of our verbal communication and ordering. We looked around at the other tables, took a few photos, and all of a sudden a procession of food was making its way to our table.

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For a mere sum of AUD$6.00 per person, we got a bottle of water each and an all-you-can-stuff-your-face-with pile of fresh herbs and salad, peanut dipping sauce, stir fried veggies, rice paper, freshly fried spring rolls and BBQd meat on sticks. We just stared at it all while we tried to work out what was going on, not realising that our very helpful waitress was preparing to feed us. Literally. She grabbed a rice paper sheet and demonstrated how to put it all together – layer some green stuff and/or veggies, a spring roll and a bit of meat (remove stick first). Dip in sauce. Then, she shoved the roll in Sib’s mouth. Not just help it in front of her, actually, physically fed her. She then pointed to the camera – apparently she wasn’t taking the food out of Sib’s mouth until we took a photo. We thought we’d be safe after that, but no, it was my turn next! There I was, a 28 year old woman, being hand fed by a Vietnamese woman, without a single word exchanged. To call it the most bizarre dining experience of my life would probably still be an understatement.

After the feeding episode, we were finally left to eat our food, and it was incredible. Worth getting lost, worth the embarrassment of accidentally turning up in some poor old man’s backyard, worth the humiliation of being hand fed in front of other diners. This food was amazing!!! The meat was so soft and tender – still not entirely sure what it was, we think one was pork, the other we didn’t have a clue. The fresh herbs made the world of difference, and those spring rolls – wow. The dipping sauces were perfect with the food too, and when we looked like we were running out, the bowls were topped up by the attentive staff.

We couldn’t get through it all, it was literally piled on the plates. Just as we were rolling back in our seats and comparing food babies, dessert came out. We weren’t expecting this part! Mango mousse with a little whipped cream and sprinkles. I have no idea what was going on in that cup, but my goodness it was special. It was cold, smooth and creamy, with actual bits of fresh mango – perfect finish to dinner!

If you’re heading to Hoi An, do yourself a favour and look this place up on Instagram like we did. Then get yourself a map and some directions and get ready to eat like a maniac. Also, prepare to possible be hand fed. It’s worth it.

Cooking Vietnamese to numb the hurt of returning to reality

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So I’ve only been back from Vietnam a few days, and I’m already struggling to re-adapt to reality. It’s hard going back to work and regular household chores when my soul is restless, knowing it should be living out of a suitcase in a different city every week. As I usually do after returning home from travelling, I’ve fallen back on the food to merge my reality and my recent adventure.

Sib and I took a fantastic cooking class in Hoi An, which you’ll read all about soon enough; between that, all the eating we did and the close observation of the methods of the street food vendors, I guess I picked up enough to get back to my kitchen with a bit more confidence. So three days back in Melbourne, and here are the three tables of food I’ve put up for husband and I…

Day 1: pork marinated in shallots, garlic, lemongrass, salt, pepper, sugar & oil, with some greens stir fried in oyster sauce, brown rice, crispy shallots, and fresh herbs including coriander and mint.

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Day 2: Hoi An style pancakes with cucumber, carrot, fresh herbs, peanuts, crispy shallots and home made dipping sauce, with rice paper to wrap it all up in.

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Day 3: healthy bun cha – rice noodles (didn’t have vermicelli in the house so I improvised!) with pork meatballs, home made sweet & sour sauce, cucumber, carrot, crispy shallots and fresh coriander.

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It’s healthy food, it’s fresh, delicious, and most importantly it’s REAL. Nothing they eat over there (and in fact most of South East Asia) comes from a package, it’s all fresh and home made. Eating like this for the last few days has made me feel a bit better about being back to the “real” world – after all, isn’t travel all about finding new ways of living, learning, taking the parts that resonate most with you back home with you? And for me, it’s almost always the food that resonates most, it’s the truest indicator of other lives and loves.

Eat (& drink!) here: Nola, Hanoi, Vietnam

Cafe Nola
89 Mã Mây, Quan Hoan Kiem, Hanoi

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One of my best friends was in Vietnam a few years ago and absolutely loved it. When I told her my sister and I were going, she had two recommendations: try some white rose dumplings (I’ll get to them), and go to Nola. She gave us fair warning that it was hidden down a dodgy looking little alley way, but it was worth the hunt to find it.

We followed our map, banking on the fact that my friend loved me enough to not send me to some dark place that would result in organ harvesting, and kept our eyes open for number 89. We eventually spotted a little “NOLA” sign above our heads, and followed the colourful alley down a little further, ending up here: the front bar at Nola.

We were the led up a few flights of stairs into a hidden little paradise…

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This place is amazing! It has gorgeous, tiered terraces, with umbrellas floating overhead, and beautifully mismatched lawn furniture. A little bit kitsch, a little bit colonial, a little bit hipster, a little bit garden paradise. We were seated immediately and handed a menu – two cocktails and a plate of fresh spring rolls, thanks!

My mojita was magnificent – ice cold and full of fresh lime and mint. The spring rolls were… well… just look.

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Beef, omlette and fresh herbs and veggies. The rice paper was soft and silky smooth, not even remotely chewy or tough. You can tell when they’re made fresh over there, and these couldn’t have been fresher. The beef was super tender, and the dipping sauce was really good!

Not only delicious food and great service, but super cheap as well! It’s a great place to just kick back and relax, to enjoy a break in your travels – if you’re in Hanoi, put it on your list!

Through my eyes: the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

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This place is truly, genuinely beautiful – I can’t think of a single other word for it. Everything is picture perfect; it’s old and run down in that “only in a movie” way, the way you’d imagine it’d be while reading an old book about the Vietnam war. It’s colourful, truly foreign (no one really speak English, so bad luck if you get lost and need directions!), and just perfect.

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