French Vietnamese

The audio for my presentation with Fuchsia Dunlop at Asia House is June is up. Happily, it went well, with a lot of kind questions and comments from the audience, despite one of the menu items, lemongrass creme brûlée, having to be dropped at the last minute due to serving bowl supply issues.

Fuchsia was a very generous interviewer, and amongst my friends it was lovely to see Freya, who supported my project at Asia House last year, as well as my university tutor, Lara, and my editor at the F-word, Ania. It was also excellent to work with the very vital Betty Yao and Paul Bloomfield, an old friend of Yan Kit So’s, who donated his catering expertise on the night.

Since then I’ve been working on my book proposal, rooting and growing some of the herbs that I used at the event onto my new terrace, and planning another trip to Marseille at the end of August to visit some of my Vietnamese family (+ attending to life admin, of course).

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Vietnamese Bal, (Kinh giới) on the left, and Perilla ( Tía tô) on the right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about France since going to Vietnam last year. I spent 6 days in Paris in April, since a friend of a friend of a friend, Chloe, was kind enough to lend me and Luke her little student residence studio in Montreuil, while she was at home for the Easter holidays.

I’d never spent long in Paris, although my dad had told me stories of incredible Vietnamese restaurants he’d been taken to in Paris’ Chinatown by my mum’s taxi-driver brother, Gerard, tales of decadent feasts and the lightest shredded beef salads imaginable. We struggled to find Vietnamese restaurants that even served any Vegetarian dishes in Paris, which goes to show how much the French love their meat, more exclusively than the Vietnamese or the British.

We finally found a little place in Belleville called Cyclo that did a vegetarian version of Bun Cha Gio – spring rolls and fried tofu on a noodle salad bed. Although the spring rolls were a little bland, the tofu was soft and well coated in a thickened soy sauce, and the bowl was dressed with delicious shreds of soft, caramelised red onion. This was not the onion-free, vegan Buddhist cookery I encountered so often in Vietnam. The overall effect was richer, with deeper, more meat-like flavours and textures than in tofu you get in the UK and Vietnam, which tends to just be fried hard, not marinated and soft.

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On the dessert menu was further evidence of decadent style French/Vietnamese hybrid cooking: a luxuriant Mango Creme Brûlée. There was no mango flavour in the creme, it came simply as a piece of fresh mango grilled atop the sugar, and almost looked like a piece of caramelised Vietnamese style clapypot fish.

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The owner of Cyclo, hailing from the South of Vietnam, claimed his tofu dish was a regional speciality, a Cambodian hybrid. Since I’d eaten versions of this dish in parts of Northern Vietnam, I was quietly sceptical. Indeed, at another good Vietnamese restaurant we visited with Chloe in Paris – Au Vietnam going towards Chinatown – the owner also explained the origin of another innovative soft and fresh tofu dish, this one served in a light sauce with fresh mango and lychees. She explained why it was called ‘Imperial’ tofu: it was a family recipe, and her family had apparently been Vietnamese nobility, which is supposedly why I had never encountered it in Vietnam.

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It was interesting to hear these various origin myths, which Vietnamese restauranteurs in England don’t seem to be as bothered about sharing. I suppose French restaurant go-ers are more keen to hear romantic stories of their country’s colonial history. And it seems that French restaurant-goers also expect something a little more from their tofu, they expect it to be rendered, flavoured and textured as you would cook meat, which is a good lesson for any vegetarian gourmande.

The Vegetarian Vietnamese: Food From The Jade Cave

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I’m excited to be building up to my presentation on 17th June at Asia House, where I will be interviewed by the renown Sichuanese Food writer, Fuchsia Dunlop, accompanied by lots of Luke’s beautiful photographs from Vietnam. I’ll be discussing the findings from my research into Vegetarian cuisine over there, via pagodas, vegan restaurants and the kitchens of many an excellent home chef, all with the help of Vietnamese friends and the Vietnamese embassy in the UK. We’ll then be serving everyone up a small platter of taster veggie Vietnamese food, recipes picked up along the trail, including ginger caramelised tofu, coconut and kohlrabi salad, mushroom spring rolls on a noodle salad bed and a lemongrass Creme Brûlée. Luke’s even preparing a soundtrack of all the field recordings he made in Vietnam. I’ve been testing the recipes myself and with Paul Bloomfield, who has kindly offered to sponsor the event, being a great friend of Yan Kit’s.

For more information and tickets see here, Asia House will also be launching the next 2014 Yan Kit So bursary for the next lucky aspiring Asian food writer to go travelling http://asiahouse.org/events/yan-kit-memorial-award/

Ngon Chiswick: A Vegetarian Pho Review

I headed in here today, the sunniest day of the year so far, to pick up a bowl of their Vegetarian Pho, which I think is the best in Town. And I’ve had a few. When the place first opened in Autumn 2013, they held back on releasing a vegetarian version of their pho, unhappy with the flavour of the stock. And so we’d been happy to eat their summer rolls, zesty salads and delicious garlic marinated mushroom and tofu Banh Mi’s, until one day in January the hallowed vegetarian soup was ready.

I was told by the lovely staff at Ngon how the Saigon born owner had come up with a broth using pears and apples to add a slight, woody sweetness and depth to their meat-free stock that I haven’t tasted elsewhere in the UK. Add to this the lovely combination of marinated shiitake and oyster mushrooms, tender green beans, chives, chillies and you have a very addictive soup: both fresh and hearty.

Sadly it had been a quiet day at Ngon, because the increasingly bland chain Vietnamese restaurant, Pho, has just opened up the road on Chiswick High Street, offering 50% opening weekend discounts. But the staff are confident that once the novelty and discounts have worn off, people will be back at Ngon, which offers you so much more flavour and charm at a better price. I for one strolled out towing my sweet pho and ice coffee picnic into the spring sunshine.

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Winter Returnals and New Year of the Horse

Happy year of the horse to you all, it’s good to see you again after such a long absence. I’m just about feeling normal again after returning from Vietnam with Luke a couple of months ago. And I can tell you, coming back from here to London after spending the Autumn in 28 C monsooning Vietnam was a brutal shock.

By the end of our travels, we were spending much of the daytime sitting on the pavement making notes and taking snaps whilst drinking fresh soy milk or tropical juice (my favourite was watermelon) and Vietnamese style coffee (an expresso shot mixed with lots of condensed milk and poured over lots ice). As my friend Giang told me in Hanoi, ‘in Vietnam, everything happens in the street’. Cooking, eating, socialising, selling, gambling, chess playing – it all takes place outside in the sun.

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hanoi.

A lone cockerel takes a walk down the rainy streets of Hoi An.

Iced Vietnamese Coffee at Tracey Lister’s Hanoi Cook School

Iced Vietnamese Coffee at Tracey Lister’s Hanoi Cook School

Iced lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrups at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An

Iced lime juice with lemongrass, cinnamon and ginger syrups at Reaching Out Silent Tea House in Hoi An

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi

A roving street vendor selling vegetables from her bike in Hanoi

After this, imagine our sensory confusion at entering Costa Coffee at 6am one rainy November morning in Gatwick airport. We had been thrust back into this dark, cold, indoors city, wearing only sandals and multicoloured monsoon macs.

Apart from the weather, one of the biggest differences between the UK and Vietnam was the abundance of strictly vegan (chay) restaurants. They proved to be plentiful in every Vietnamese town we went, mostly run by the local Buddhist pagodas as a way of raising extra money.

A worker having lunch at Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism

A worker having lunch at Buddhist restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by books about the benefits of veganism

Veganism was much more widespread there than it is in the UK. Most Vietnamese go vegan at least one day a month on special days in the Buddhist calendar. Eating vegan (an chay) in Vietnam also means avoiding garlic and onions so as not to inflame the senses. It’s all seen as a way of collecting good karma, and so as full-time vegetarians we were given a very warm welcome and were admired for what was seen as our holy and disciplined characters…

In these ‘chay’ restaurants we ate many special vegan dishes that I collected in my travelling journal. We had salads made from shredded banana blossoms, fresh coconut and kohlrabi, green mango; tofu that was caramelised, deep fried, curried, and marinated; mock meats made from flour spiced and crisped to taste like pork or chicken and then simmered in lemongrass and chopped tomatoes.

(Very) freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi.

(Very) freshly pressed tofu sold at a small neighbourhood market in Hanoi.

Fresh coconut and Kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi’s most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French Quarter.

Fresh coconut and Kohlrabi salad at one of Hanoi’s most venerable vegan restaurants on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the old French Quarter.

Occasionally the simplicity of the Buddhist food made it difficult for our palates, accustomed as they are to the strongly flavoured food vegetarians tend to eat here in the UK. I confess that once or twice we ate pizza and missed hummus…

Even so, through contacts and friends I’d been able to make through The Vietnamese Embassy in the UK and organisations Vietpro and Longdan, we met up with many different home-cooks and chefs throughout Vietnam who were generously showed us into their kitchens of their homes, pagodas, training schools and restaurants.

One of the most special cookery lessons from Ms Anh Tuyet, a lady in the ancient Imperial capital of Hue who specialises in teaching vegan cuisine. Over half a day she taught me 7 local dishes, influenced by Hue’s unique regional vegetables (things like bitter figs and young jackfruit) and its tradition of complex, royal gastronomy.

Fresh green figs, or ‘vả’, commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue.

Fresh green figs, or ‘vả’, commonly used in vegetarian cooking in Hue.

Ms Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls.

Ms Anh Tuyet’s royal Hue cockerel, with dragon fruit for a body and chillies for a crown. His feathers are made from vegan spring rolls.

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet’s mixed salad ‘Goi’ and Hue style stuffed, deep fried pancakes, ‘Banh Khoai’

The royal cockerel makes a second appearance next to Ms Tuyet’s mixed salad ‘Goi’ and Hue style stuffed, deep fried pancakes, ‘Banh Khoai’

The day after, we were shown around the organic gardens of Duc Son, a local pagoda and children’s orphanage, where the monks and nuns grow all their produce, including fresh green tea, mushrooms, aubergines and chillies.

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son pagoda.

A nun working as head chef in the restaurant in Duc Son pagoda.

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son pagoda.

An organic aubergine growing in the gardens at Duc Son pagoda.

A farmer at Duc Son pagoda, Hue, poses next to the mushrooms he grows for the nuns in a special shed.

A farmer at Duc Son pagoda, Hue, poses next to the mushrooms he grows for the nuns in a special shed.

A vegan feast cooked up for us especially by the nuns at Duc Son

A vegan feast cooked up for us especially by the nuns at Duc Son

Cooking, especially home cooking, is generally the domain of women in Vietnam. As we found when staying with my friend Lily’s family in Hanoi, many Vietnamese wives and mothers will wake up at around 5 or 6 am to make it to the local market and buy fresh ingredients for the day. They will then go to work full time, only to return home in the evening to cook again and care for their families. Lily’s mother was a devout Buddhist as well, which meant that aside from making wholesome vegan food every day, any spare hours were spent praying in her shrine on the balcony at the top of the house. Twice a week she would leave the neighbourhood, riding out fast on her moped to her favourite pagoda near Hanoi’s West Lake.

Spending so much time with female cooks illuminated my mother’s upbringing for me. Although my mother was born and raised in France and does not really speak Vietnamese, her parents were from Vietnam. When I applied for the Yan Kit So grant, it was because food was one of my most tangible ways that connected me to my mother’s heritage, and meeting so many Vietnamese women through cooking presented a new context for me to understand my mother’s own character and struggles, one that I hope to explore further as I write up my notes for the trip.

Vietnam Playlist

It was in the afternoon, just as we started approaching Saigon on our Sinh Tourist bus last Sunday, that I realised I couldn’t find my ipod. I started to sadly resign myself to it being the latest and most valuable addition to the ‘trail’ (as Luke calls it) that I seem to be leaving behind me through Vietnam. This includes around £40 (the first sum of money I had changed in Hanoi), my sunglasses, Luke’s new glasses case that was temporarily in my care for a few hours (jumped out of my bag?) and my luggage locks – each lost at different locations.

‘Don’t worry’, I told myself. ‘Yes, it’s true that you’ve had that ipod for over 6 years, it’s one of your treasured possessions, it saw you safely through the last year of school and university, but, maybe losing it is a good thing? Maybe it will mark a positive end to the last 6 years?’ But it was hard to believe the spin. Losing it just as we showed up in HCMC, it seemed to me that a curse was being put on our arrival in the motherland. It felt like I was being followed by a thieving shadow.

I’ve looked forward to all the bus journeys we’ve had in Vietnam so far, overnight or day, mostly because it’s a chance to uninterruptedly loop certain songs.

Luckily it turned out my ipod was just down the back of the seat, and so the HCMC curse was lifted and we strolled happily out into the city. Hopefully, I’ll not add anything else to my shadow trail. But just in case the ipod does disappear, here’s my current looping playlist:

Roxy Music: Take A Chance With Me

Roxy Music: More Than This

Phương Dung: Đố Ai. Potential contender for Lily’s Wedding.

Bryan Ferry: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Prince: 17 Days
17 Days

Roxy Music:

Tiyiselani Vomaseve: Na Xaniseka

Giorgio Moroder: Knights in White Satin

Aster Aweke: Track 2 From album, ‘Aster Aweke’. Can’t find Track 2 on the internet, so this is Track 1 instead -

Richard Anthony: Je Ne Vivrais Sans Toi. Was reminded of this one today in Me Cafe, HCMC, when they played Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. My mum used to sing old hits from the UK or the US like this one but in the French language adaptations, was always quite funny.

Roxy Music: Jealous Guy. The sentiment of this song is basically just a shit excuse, but such catchy music.

On The Pagoda Trail

On Monday (9th Sept) Luke and I woke late, at 11:30, to an anxious looking Loi (Lily’s mum) holding the phone, with Mit on the other end asking us if we wanted to come down for lunch. Our jet lag was making us feel a bit embarrassed… It emerged that Lily’s mum had cooked for us the night before but our dinner plans changed when Mit and Bom took us to eat at their cousins’, and so now Loi wanted us to eat up everything on the table so that she didn’t have to heat it up twice. We had a good go at this:

Loi had made the classic dish of fried tofu in tomato sauce, morning glory and white mushroom soup, and a revelation for me – deep fried mock squid. I must learn how to make the batter for these little fritters, I think were I to do them myself, I’d replace the mock squid with potatoes or vegetables, but it was really delicious. One for the book, a simple crowd pleaser with potential to be really kick-ass.

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The whole time, whenever Loi and I couldn’t understand each other she phoned up Mit, even if it was something trivial like ‘what vegetable is this!’.

Mit kindly arranged to meet us later after work at the Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum, so that we could get a sense of what Pagoda life would be like. The night before, my friend Giang put me in touch with someone who might be able to get us to do a short stay in one of the pagodas around here, so that I can learn to cook under the supervision of the monks. We’ll see how it goes. I would also like to see if I can help out at one of the next feast days where they make special vegetarian food.

And so, hot, wearing our long sleeved shirts and trousers for the first time, we were driven to Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum and one of her friends. It was near West Lake, one of the plusher areas of Hanoi, and the ride there was beautiful, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and big, yellow colonial mansions. The pagoda itself looked stunning, and after shuffling cross-legged behind the prayer books in the back row, we knelt up and began joining in with the chant (which was actually led by Lily’s mum initially).The attendees were mostly women, and the male monk leading the chant had a very beautiful tenor voice that made the 108 repetitions of various mantras very moving. Mit later explained to us that the reason she believed there were so many female followers in the pagoda was that Vietnamese women often have hard times that they don’t feel they can share with anybody, not even with other women, and so going to the pagoda is a way of lifting these troubled spirits without vocalising the issues.

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During the service was when our Vietnamese lessons really came in handy. Although we couldn’t understand more than a couple of words, Luke and I had been taught our alphabet back in London by our brilliant tutor Tra, so we were able to chant the words out with everyone else. Luke had a bit of trouble with this though as the super glue holding his glasses together melted in the heat on our first day in Hanoi. He developed a bit of a migraine after a few minutes trying to squint at the pages, but kept going till the end anyway.

The ride back home took us past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and as I explained my cooking project further to Mit, she talked to me about Buddhism and the plans for Lily’s wedding. Mit, poised and kind, has ambitions to study in the UK, but various complications have stopped her from going so far.

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Mit and I on her electric scooter

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Loi with her bike – the only time she uses it is twice a week when going to the pagoda

We were very hungry and thirsty by the time we all got home, but before I even realised what had happened, Loi had cooked another lovely dinner of stir fried rice noodles with mushrooms and eggs, and more of my beloved squid doughnuts. I keep meaning to join in with her cooking but she seems to anticipate our movements and by the time we come into the kitchen she’s already finished.

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We chatted the evening away with Bom, Mit and Loi, eating yoghurt mixed with sweet ice coffee, ice green tea, and planning the months ahead, and arranged to meet at 7 in the morning for Loi to take us herb shopping in the market, and for me to get ingredients for my tofu curry for dinner.

8:30 am the next day and luke nudges me awake. My alarm doesn’t seem to go off and there’s a missed call from Mit – oops. I run downstairs in a panic but Loi is still there and in a good mood, she doesn’t seem annoyed that we’re late! So quickly we make our way to the market down the road.

We walked down the winding alleys, that we normally speed down through on mopeds, but took a left turn this time and suddenly a load of small stalls emerged (one right outside the house), each selling something different – various cuts of meat, freshly pressed blocks of medium-firm tofu, fruit everywhere: rambutans, jackfruit, papayas, guavas… all sorts of green beans, round purple aubergines and some tables purely dedicated to herbs. I’m familiar with the names of some of these from my research and food lessons, but most of them I’ve never tasted as I haven’t been able to find them in the UK.

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Fresh Tofu

Rau Ram

Rau Ram

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Hung

Hung

Perilla

Perilla

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The light was good. The sun was out. After a bit of a wander, I used my dictionary to indicate ‘buy’ (mua) to Loi, and my translated vocab list so that she helped me choose lots of herbs for my curry: La Chanh Thai / Kaffir Lime, Hung / Thai basil, Rau ram / Vietnamese coriander, Xa / Lemongrass, Nghe / Turmeric. Loi began to buy all different kinds – more than I would use in my curry – I think as an effort to introduce me to the herbs. We gradually ticked all my list off (although I first said coconut water instead of coconut milk, so we got both). Each time we went to a new stall lily’s mum seemed to gently, but persistently, haggle the price of every item down to about 5000 Vietnam dong (15p).

We went home and feasted on two sticky rice packages that Loi had picked up for us – one yellow with turmeric, the other white with what looked like black beans. These were delicious and nothing like the attempt I made a few weeks ago, which I blogged about here. The glutinous rice was much softer, which must be to do with the freshness of the produce here (although my cooking methods might be to blame, who knows).

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Loi also made us a huge and hearty tofu, mushroom and vermicelli spicy soup that I’m thinking of stealing for my book. Just need to learn how she makes that stock. Her son, Bom, reckons it’s meat. So maybe not really one for the book.

I explained to Loi that I wanted to cook dinner that night, and started prepping the marinade for my lemongrass curry – Loi corrected my peeling technique a few times (this happens whenever i cook with Vietnamese people, I have a lot to learn). To me the marinade didn’t taste that good compared to normal – Loi didnt say anything when I asked her to taste it – and the soy sauce here is different, a bit stronger than the thin brand I use at home. I hoped it wouldl still taste Ok though…

By then I was a zombie, after another sleepless night, and napped for 3 hours. After spending a few hours on the blog, it was soon 5:30 and I went down to finish the curry. Loi seemed to be praying for longer than normal upstairs, and the first person I saw was Bom, who was tired but still charming after a long day’s work. Then Mit showed up, excited to be trying my food, but Loi came down a little stressed and immediately started talking fast to Mit, raising her voice. I was worried something was going wrong, but Mit explained that Lily’s mum was just going out to visit a friend and would miss my dinner! She also translated Loi’s final comment – that she thought my tofu was too soft. She drove out quickly on her moped (she’s a good, fast driver – Luke can testify after the trip to the pagoda), but only after fetching me some fresh kaffir lime leaves from the tree on the rooftop balcony.

After attempting in vain to finish roasting the peanuts in time for my curry, we decided to just sit down to eat anyway. (I later got the blame for them being undercooked).

The reactions weren’t immediately positive… Mit suggested the pieces should be deep fried (mine is only lightly fried to seal in the marinade before being added to the curry), and that the curry should have more root vegetables. So more like a standard curry you’d get in a northern Vietnamese restaurant. Bom said he liked it a lot but it was a bit spicy for him (it wasn’t very spicy). I was feeling a bit stressed myself by now. Cooking for a family is hard. I can’t imagine cooking for 4 people like that twice a day, but over here it’s normal. I’m told everyone mostly eats dinner at home, the processed meals that I ate a lot as a teenager when my parents were working being unheard of.

At this point though, Lily’s dad spoke to me for the first time in days, saying that Mit (Phuong) only likes burnt pig meat anyway. Initially I thought he was saying my food was bad, but in hindsight I think it was a compliment? Hopefully it was…he took a generous second helping. Who knows…

When Lily’s mum came home she seemed more relaxed and she quickly ate the remaining curry, saying at first that she thought curry was an Indian food. This made me feel a bit anxious again, since yes, although curries came to Vietnam from India, they’ve been making them here for a long time, and I find a curry recipe in almost every ‘authentic’ Vietnamese cookbook I buy. I put this down again down to regional differences, where in the North, people eat less pungent and spicy food and less coconut milk. Curry is probably a Southern influenced dish, whereas Loi’s northern cooking, with her many stir fries and noodle dishes, is influenced more strongly by China. My sense from speaking to everyone up here is that they have quite specific expectations of what food should be like, and they generally dislike food that evokes different regions of Vietnam too strongly.

Loi did say she liked the curry though, and after a yoghurt mixed with a local, untranslatable fruit pickle, which she said would help us sleep, we had the best night’s rest yet of our stay here.

Weekend Night Riding in Hanoi

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So, last Saturday at 12:30 pm we were woken from our post flight nap by a gentle knock on the door, to meet the lovely Bom and Mit, Lily’s brother and his girlfriend, who invited us down for our 8th meal in 24 hours in really graceful English. We both fell for them from then on, and are massively relieved to meet Mit, who can speak fluent English and who comes round to the house everyday! Mit is only 22 and has only learnt English at school, but she sounds as though she’s lived in the UK for years, she’s very impressive. They seem willing to help us with all their free time when they aren’t at work, translating, talking, taking us around on their mopeds, taking us to eat at their cousins’ – looking after us as though we were family.

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On Loi’s lunch menu was – deep fried tofu with a soy dipping sauce, stir fried morning glory with coriander, and a mixed mushroom stir fry. Her cooking is quite delicately flavoured, she is a devout follower of Buddhism and so I don’t think she uses much garlic, or other pungent aromatics that I’ve grown to use in every dish. She also doesn’t use fresh herbs on everything the way I’ve been taught to do from cookbooks and from cooks with Vietnamese descent, which from what I’ve read must be a Northern thing, since in the South crops are more abundant and the land is more fertile.

They all very soon made it clear that we were welcome to stay with Lily’s family until Lily’s herself comes back from Singapore in a couple of weeks and needs our room. Loi, Lily’s mum, repeated about 3 times that she was happy to have us. This was such a big gift, since as soon as we’d arrived at the airport I’d started to freak out slowly on the inside about the scale of my project and how I was going to accomplish what I’d been intending given my unfamiliarity with the Vietnamese language.

Arriving in Hanoi had been a little bit of a shock for me, I think perhaps because of my visit as a child with my family where I was very sheltered, ferried around as we were for 2 weeks to hotels with tour guides the whole time, and with my mum speaking a bit of Vietnamese herself. That and all the beautiful Tranh Anh Hung films I’ve seen, and my experiences of Vietnamese life with my family in Marseille with its ancient Phoenician architecture, I was probably expecting something quite stylised…

After another post lunch nap we went down for dinner (lunch leftovers – the waistbands on my trousers are exploding) and then a trip to the weekend night market in the old quarter, which is especially lively at the moment because it is the Mid Autumn children’s festival, and so all these special toys and drums are being sold. It’s a neon overload, the shiny bright new Chinese toys starting to replace the handmade traditional ones, according to the changing demands of the kids.

I’ve never ridden a moped before, and was pretty scared, since I managed to fall off a stationary pedal bike recently and cut up my leg. Now I feel like renting a moped myself to get around on everyday. It’s thrilling, once you get used to the way people drive out here, which is kind of like how people walk on pavements in London – just go straight for the available space, slow down when necessary but never stop. Don’t worry about zebra crossings, they don’t seem to mean anything. Which makes walking much harder than getting around on mopeds – it’s best to go in groups, you have to be ever-alert of your immediate surroundings, and pretty assertive with incoming mopeds and your right to street space. I’m not great at the ever-alert bit. You shouldn’t be assertive with incoming cars: only mopeds.

We stopped for a seasonal fruit snack of ‘sau’, which Thuy told me is growing all over the trees on the streets in Hanoi at the moment, and the delicately sweet, freshly pressed sugar cane juice (a new for me), before mopedding home again.

I then had my classic bedtime freak out where I was worrying so much about the project ahead that I just lay in bed for 3 hours without being able to sleep, heart racing. Up til now things have been so hectic I was trying to just focus on the practicals of getting us to Vietnam for 3 months, rather than the smaller details of my itinerary. But I listened to Roxy Music for a bit and told myself that I always do this at the start of travels for some reason, and eventually relaxed, getting to sleep about 3/4 am local time.

So by the time the lovely Mit and Bom drove us to Trang Tien plaza at 10 AM to meet my friends Thuy and Giang, I was exhausted.

Giang and Thuy are friends I met in London through the network ‘Vietpro’ last year, when they were studying for MAs in the UK. I’ve only met them once but had been chatting to them a lot in preparation for this trip since they’d gone back to Vietnam. Seeing them again was great, they’re full of energy and drive, and have travelled in Europe a lot more than I have despite being roughly the same age. In Ciao Caphe near Trang Tien plaza Luke and I sat down to breakfasts of stir fried veg and straw eared mushrooms with rice. The food was a little oily and expensive, with no protein source – I think we’d probably picked the wrong place to go for vegetarian food. And strong but sweet iced coffee, that you mix up with condensed milk, while Giang grabbed my notebook and drew me an improvv’d map map of Vietnam (I don’t have a map yet), and a map of the day’s itinerary around Hanoi’s old quarter. Thuy was saying how lucky we were that it wasn’t raining like the day before. We’d just reached Hoan Kim Lake when the downpour started, and had to run for cover under some trees, sharing our one umbrella between 3 of us plus a poor stranded young couple.

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Luke was the only one with foresight enough to bring a raincoat and I started shivering with cold as the water soaked completely through my clothes in a matter of seconds, so Giang rescued us by calling a taxi and taking us to a bar, Gecko, that she used to work in, telling us tales of how one year the rain lasted for 4 days and flooded Hanoi completely, leaving all the tourists stranded in Hanoi and in her bar. Food provisions to Hanoi got cut down severely, so they did their best to feed people pancakes, beer and stir fries on dwindling supplies until the floods were over.

Hot tea in the cosy, empty bar and Giang’s favourite – apple crumble – warmed me up, lifting my spirits and making me sleepy. After we’d ordered, all the waiters started taking naps as Giang put Eric Clapton on the jukebox and her and Thuy tried to remember all the different 36 street names in the old district of Hanoi, all named after products that used to be sold at the markets here – things like silver street, drum street, chicken street… Giang entertained us with stories of her adventurous motorbike travels all over Northern Vietnam and the characterful foreigners she’d met working at this bar, next door as it was to a famous beer joint, where a pint of ‘bia’ costs 15 pence. By the time they reached 36 the rain had died down, we left the bar and bought cheap coloured ponchos and continued our tour, heading for Hong Ma, a famous dried fruit shop where Giang took us straight to the free samples section. There we dined well. My favourites were caramelised plum with ginger, and an untranslatable fruit covered in chilli and salt. We’ll be back for souvenirs, no doubt.

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We wondered through the streets chatting, Luke snapping and practising with his new camera, stopping later for a second meal where I ate mock prawns (not great, kind of slimy) in lemongrass curry, and the others had much better fresh, hand-made-tofu curries, and we shared some sweet pineapple spring rolls. We parted full and happy, only to be picked up by Mit and Bom on their mopeds and driven to their cousins for dinner! Crossing the red river bridge on the back of Mit’s electric scooter, the battery started to die down and Bom had to ride next to us, pushing us along with his leg – then I really did start to worry, especially since Mit never wears a helmet and I don’t wear one when I’m riding with her, even though it’s illegal. This feels pretty cool most of the time and a good opportunity for photos, but yeah, taking corners with Bom pushing us with one leg was really frightening.

Whilst we were riding over the bridge, Mit was explaining to me that the bridge had been built by the French, and then said to me that she’d told her cousins about my French colonial ancestry – my great great grandfather was a French soldier who married a Vietnamese woman at the time of the invasion, hence my mother’s maiden name is Domine. And her cousins wanted to my family for bringing modern infrastructure to Vietnam – this was a little bit of a shock to hear, I said ‘I suppose that’s one way of looking at it’. I remember my mum saying something similar to a guide back in 2001, and the guide just nodded and smiled awkwardly. It was an awkward moment captured on screen. The sense that Luke and I have got from talking to people is that there is a huge generational gap over here, people born in the 1980s and onwards leading very different lifestyles, equipped as every young person seems to be with mobile internet and mopeds.

At Lily’s cousins’ we dined on fried tofu, omelet, watermelon (much sweeter over here compared to the watery, flavourless ones you get in the UK), taro and morning glory soup, potatoes and boiled bamboo shoots with coriander (mui tau), accompanied by the noises of 4 young children. And we were treated to a starter snack at lily’s oldest aunt’s house first, who used to lead the nursing team at Hanoi hospital and whose husband was a high ranking officer in the Viet Minh army. Here I discovered the joys of ice lemon tea and salt and chilli dry dipping paste for pomelos (chinese grapefruit). Practising my Vietnamese, I haltingly said I loved the dipping sauce, and was promptly given the rest of the box by Lily’s aunt to keep as a souvenir.

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The cousins were so kind, they invited us on a weekend trip to Halong Bay! I couldn’t believe it, and I’m extremely excited. Halong is probably my best memory of Vietnam from when I came back in 2001. Happy and full, we wandered with the family to drink raw cane sugar and snack on toasted sunflower seeds (there’s special knack to removing the shells with your teeth), sitting out late into the night at a local street stall with low plastic stools, as the kids played all around us.

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