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.”