Restaurants & Bars

Notes on Vietnam and Laos

Boodz | Jan 2, 200911:00 AM     2

This is my first post, offered in gratitude to members who informed this first trip to SE Asia (December 2008). I wish I had made more notes and next time I will. I keep thinking ‘this is unforgettable’ but names and dishes then promptly escape me.

Bangkok was first stop but the airport sit-in meant diversion to HK (separate post on China board). But routing back through Bangkok we had taken the precaution of booking at Sirocco (outside on 63rd floor of State Tower building) to fill our 6-hour stopover. If you only have six hours there can’t be a better and more romantic (or more extravagant) way to see Bangkok from your table! Considering the location would alone book it out for months ahead, the food is actually very good.

Hanoi was next stop. The restaurant at the Metropole, Spice Gardens, was well reviewed here and even without the temptation to eat in own hotel for first night (a weak habit) seemed a wise move as an introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. It wasn’t. The idea here was evidently a contemporary twist but across all six eaters we were not convinced. We might have been jaded by fact that new decoration in progress meant that instead of the scent of either spices or gardens we were overwhelmed by the smell of fresh paint but the lasting impact will be a very bland décor.

Successful discoveries by asking around locally were two in same group: Wild Rice and Club des Orientales. Interesting upscale surroundings for what seemed to our untutored taste proper Vietnamese cooking with the best ingredients. I think the latter is what used to be called Emperor’s so don’t go looking for that.

We almost universally rated our cheapest lunch one of the best meals of the whole trip: Cha Ca. One of the things endearing me to Chowhound was that it might put a modest back-street establishment where no English appeared to be spoken on a truly global map for no other reason than the quality of its single dish. It’s a fresh fish, close enough to perch, self-cooked in mid-table over coals, fried along with herbs and ‘morning glory’ (or water spinach) in a very mild oil that does not spit or splutter (how?), and eaten with rice noodles.

Staying near Hoi An we were disappointed with Brothers Café: indifferent food and too touristy (by the coachload) but Mango Rooms was much better. They have opened a second across the river but it was sadly closed when we wanted to try it. Tuna dishes both as starter and main course were excellent. We were perhaps discovering that in this part of the world you want to stay close to street food or stick with simple ingrediients.

In Saigon (or HCMC) were had the benefit of recommendations from a Vietnamese friend who also took over the ordering on our first evening. What a difference it makes. It also helps to know how to handle some of these dishes as there is a lot of custom in the eating as well as preparation that visitors might easily miss. Her introduction to authentic cuisine was the easily found central restaurant Quan an Ngou. Try it even without guidance and be adventurous (including the snails with minced pork).

She also tipped us off about a new restaurant, the Deck, which in a very busy city is refreshingly quiet. In District 2, in the curve of the river looking across to a completely dark opposite bank (and with the city behind you), you eat by the river watching a few sparsely lit boats passing and water lilies drifting by. Good fusion food and a high standard across a wide range of dishes.

Pho lovers may know their Pho 20 from their Pho 24 or maybe would not be seen dead in either of these chains but we were very impressed with the latter as a lunch venue. What we would give for either of them on London’s streets (although there is a Pho bar in the food court at the new Westfield mall we shall have to try).

I’m missing out Siem Reap as we were unmoved by the dinners outside our hotel, the Residence d’Angkor, but you can’t eat in every night. The best food was in the country near a site called Kbal Spean, in a tourist restaurant on the approach road which the guides all know. (Go to Kbal Spean if you are fit enough to climb up 1.5 kms of quite steep jungle trail to see ‘the river of a thousand linga’: carvings in the river bed. You just don’t see these everywhere.) We tended to stick with fish. These vast ancient cities were there (and vast) because of the lake: water for rice growing and abundant fish. No need to change it.

We finished in Luang Prabang in Laos. We did it the wrong way round but we suggest the best culinary orientation is to be had lunchtime, day one, at Tamarind, well known to members. It is not just the idea of lots of tasting dishes but also the explanations that Australian-speaking Caroline can offer. If you get up early to feed the monks you should also catch the morning market. You won’t necessarily find mole or snake in the restaurants but it’s not just the meat that’s different: almost everything in the fruit and veg department is unfamiliar. Perhaps that’s one reason we were happy to have something French at l’Elephant.

We tried 3 Nagas but only later discovered it has changed hands. The mixed European and Laos food was patchy, if beautifully presented, and the service friendly (as comes naturally in this part of the world) but erratic in taking orders and delivery and rather uninformed. It was also way overpriced and that is totally unnecessary here. However, it was worth it just to provide a new name for the three naggers in our party. L’Elephant has taken over the signature Laos dishes from the old 3 Nagas as a set dinner, by the way, so all may not be lost.

Don’t bother to tuk tuk up to the Hotel Residence Phou Vao. It may be the best place to stay (until Adrian Zeccha opens a new Aman hotel) and the location is beautiful and very romantic but the cooking is mucked up: an attempt at sophistication that either talent or ingredients are not quite up to – and who needs it here anyway? Not surprisingly, the pricing is also over ambitious.

If we had had another night we would have tried Apsara which hounds seem to like.

Ideal combination: breakfast at the Park Hotel in HCMC (even better pastries than Metropole, Hanoi) would be followed by Cha Ca in Hanoi for a light lunch and then dinner at Tamarind in Luang Prabang except it doesn’t open so it would have to be Club des Orientales in Hanoi. Some hounds seem to manage more but we struggle with three big meals a day.

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