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Postcard from Tom: Three ways to eat in Vietnam

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Almost always before I travel abroad, which is almost always for the purpose of eating, I steep myself in homework. In search of the best possible meals away from home, I scour Web sites, reach out to embassies, talk to people who have lived where I’m going, delve into relevant cookbooks and ask foreign-born chefs to spill their secrets. I often spend weeks and months planning just where I’ll be eating.

Vietnam was different. Long on my bucket list, a trip to the country was simply an impulse purchase made one evening in late May, when I returned from dinner, asked my significant other how November looked, logged onto my preferred carrier’s Web site and bought two tickets that would take us to Ho Chi Minh City in the south and depart, seven days later, from Hanoi in the north. Click. Click. Click. In just a few keystrokes, I spent $6,509.40 just to get the two of us there and home. The only assurance I had that I was doing the right thing came from the Manhattan that was keeping me company and the name of a guide that a good friend swore by, Nguyen Xuan Quynh.

For the first time ever, I put my travel trust in the hands of one person. Equally rare for me, before I got on the plane I gave the owner of Vietnam Now Travel just a short wish list of things that I wanted to do and see: Have silk pajamas made. Take a cooking class. See if I can squeeze through the Cu Chi Tunnel of wartime Vietnam. Beyond that, all I had to do was tell Quynh what cities I wanted to visit and my hotel preference.

Like a good waiter, he read my mind, sometimes anticipating what I might want before I even asked. Before I met Quynh on the last leg of the trip, which also took in Hoi An and Hue, he assigned me guides who were savvy about food. Thanks to them, I left no banh mi untasted. But they, and the man whom I later learned his clients call Mighty Quynh, also introduced me to one of the warmest cooking teachers anywhere, Anh Tuyet, whose eponymous Hanoi restaurant, below her apartment, was the scene for one-on-one instruction; a boat trip that I can still savor in my mind; and the 90-minute massage of my life, possibly the best $20 I spent all year.

Some snapshots of a trip where I let someone else do the ordering:

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City

My first impression of Cuc Gach, a former French colonial house, is less than favorable. Oh, it’s a looker, this narrow restaurant that climbs three floors. But the presence of so many non-Vietnamese diners in the place feels wrong. Hadn’t I asked my guide for a taste of home — his home?

As we stroll through several snug dining areas, I figure that I can at least feast on the design during my inaugural dinner in Ho Chi Minh City. The restaurant is a beautiful tribute to recycling and nature; a trim stairwell serves as a bridge from one floor to another and looks onto a small pool animated with live koi — a touch of the country in the city, the fish a Vietnamese symbol of luck and prosperity. Whoever dressed Cuc Gach has a good eye, and an interest in history.

That someone is Tran Binh, an architect native to southern Vietnam and devoted to what he learned about his craft from the countryside. The Vietnamese have a saying: If you start something, use a brick first. Cuc Gach translates into English as “a brick.”

Our chaperone for the first leg of my Vietnamese journey, Lam Quang Huy, grins as we ease into our seats on the top floor of Cuc Gach, a peaked tile roof over our heads. It isn’t the four-poster bed frame turned into a curtained table for six nearby that elicits his reaction, but an old Lygo milk canister holding chopsticks, the container a throwback to his youth. Little stories are behind every detail in the restaurant, where bright green morning glory stems are put to use as drinking straws and the music brings back the Vietnam of the 1970s. As the owner’s grandmother did, the kitchen staff makes almost everything in-house, from the pickles to the tofu.

Unusual (and hard!) for this professional eater, I leave the ordering to Huy. He asks the waiter for soup, followed by “something salty” and vegetables, a selection of three dishes that typify the region. As we wait for the soup, Huy teaches us how to mince red chilis with the tips of the chopsticks and sings the praises of fish sauce, or what he calls “Chanel No. 5.” No meal in Vietnam is complete without a dash or more of nuoc mam.

We devour a catfish soup made sweet and sour with pineapple and tamarind, and deep-fried mackerel framed by julienne green mango. Our guide, raised southeast of the Mekong Delta, approves. “Food by my grandmother,” Huy compliments the spread.

The meal concludes with the requested vegetables: bitter melon, bok choy, pumpkin and Vietnamese greens over which rich fish sauce is spooned.

Lessons learned: Even though they might look similar, the vegetables in Vietnam taste more green, more vivid, more of themselves. Also, first impressions can be wrong.

10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, Saigon; cucgachquan.com.vn. Dinner about $15 a person.

Dateline: Ha Long Bay

There are dozens of other boats chugging leisurely across the jade-green water of Ha Long Bay toward the ancient limestone rock formations, hundreds of craggy towers strong, that became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. I can’t help thinking that the vessel I’m on, christened Cong Nghia, is the choicest of all transportation. The boat is clean, the crew is genial and there’s no bumping into anyone. While the vessel can carry nearly 50 passengers, today there are just two paying customers and our chaperone, Quynh, on board.

We are free to roam around; the cheery blue top deck offers sun, breeze and an ever-changing postcard view. (Are those tourists jumping from their sloop in their birthday suits?) Vietnamese legend has it that the bay and its many islands were created by a dragon whipping its tail in a frenzy. Mere coincidence that the bow of Cong Nghia, named for its original owner, sports a dragon head carved from wood?

We eventually dock and make our way to a trail that takes us deep inside one of a nearby island’s caves, illuminated throughout with colored spotlights to show off its many nature-made sculptures. “Paradise” is the contemporary (and apt) name of the enormous cave. However, Quynh points out a particularly voluptuous formation near the end of the 35-minute visit that prompted the local fishermen who discovered it 13 years ago to call it “Fairy’s breast.” No male seems to be able to resist having his photo snapped with the Marilyn Monroe of rocks. (Guilty!)

Spelunking gives everyone an appetite. No sooner do we return to Cong Nghia than lunch is served on the window-wrapped main deck in a wide booth, the table draped in a blue cover that almost disappears amid the flurry of dishes. First, a little dip of black pepper, red chilis, salt and kumquat juice appears. Next, some ocean crab, which a cook cracks at the table, and a plate of shrimp, which she deftly peels for us as well. Marvelous on its own, the sweet seafood, culled from the water we’re gliding on, becomes electric after a dunk in the citrusy hot sauce: big flavors from a wisp of a galley.

Vietnamese cooking emphasizes the balance of flavors and textures as well as the principles of yin and yang, or the heating and cooling characteristics of ingredients. The perfume of fresh ginger (considered hot) announces a big bowl of steamed elephant trunk clams (cool), so named for the long white meat inside the shells. Tender squid with crisp bok choy, and finely shredded cabbage glistening with oil and biting with black pepper, keep our chopsticks moving, too. A plate of carved, sliced cucumbers refreshes the palate between bites of the seafood and (there’s more?) herb-scattered butterfish.

Only three hours have passed, but between boarding and disembarking, I feel as if I’ve been to the dawn of time and back, a journey punctuated by the most memorable meal of a year that has been packed with them.

A three-to-four-hour tour of Ha Long Bay on Cong Nghia costs $120 for up to 48 passengers; lunch is an additional $20 per person. To make reservations, e-mail quynh@vietnamnowtravel.com.

Dateline: Hanoi

If you have time for only one meal in Hanoi, make it at Quan An Ngon. There are finer restaurants, and less crowded ones, but none that match the sheer number of dishes (200) or variety found in this aromatic and animated collection of 20 food stalls.

Quan An Ngon pays homage to rural food peddlers whose stands play the role that restaurants fill in the city. Although the dining destination, modeled after the shacks found in the Red River delta, offers seating inside a two-story building, the fun takes place outdoors, where booths staffed by dozens of cooks ring an open-air courtyard packed with row upon row of dark wooden tables. (Grab one; they go fast.)

You get a menu, but better to have your guide, in my case the Mighty Quynh again, show you around the perimeter and point out the selections. Each stall posts a woven bamboo sign announcing its specialty in Vietnamese. But you probably don’t require a translator to tell you that the tiny grilled birds at one stop are sparrows and that the fleshy steamed attraction at another stall is pig’s ear, wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, mint, scallions and noodles.

Talk about one-stop shopping! All of Vietnam — north, south, central — appears to be represented at Quan An Ngon. I’ve slurped better beef noodle soup, or pho, at Eden Center in suburban Virginia. But smoky grilled pork on a bed of vermicelli noodles with a tuft of fresh herbs makes me sad to be saying goodbye to Vietnam, as do steamed snails enlivened with garlic, fish sauce and lemon leaves. As we put a small dent in the menu, giant fans suspended from the trees help us keep our cool and steer fragrant cooking aromas our way. Before heading to the airport and home, I manage to squeeze in some boozy fermented black rice and yogurt and make a friend of it.

Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau St., Hoan Kiem str, Hanoi. 011-84-4-39428162138.

Tour operator Nguyen Xuan Quynh of Vietnam Now Travel can be reached at quynh@vietnamnowtravel.com.

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