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Vietnam, From Market to Kitchen

By Nancy McKeon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2003; Page H01

A few unanticipated lessons from a recent culinary tour of Vietnam:

One, to soften spring roll wrappers before assembling, sandwich them between two fresh banana leaves and leave the bundle in a plastic bag for a few hours. No word on where one might find fresh banana leaves in Washington, D.C., but cabbage leaves work too.

A Vietnamese feast begins at the market. (David Simchock - Vagabond Vistas Photography)

_____World's Fare_____
On the Olive Trail From Tuscany to Provence (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Wine First, Business Later (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
In Napa, a Museum of Earthly Delights (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Never a Hungry Moment: Best of the Fests (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Cooking Tours: An Appetite To Learn (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Vineyards: How, When and Where (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
In the Italian Hills, Creating Intense Flavor (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Subtle to Spicy: A World of Olive Oil (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
From a French Village, an Elite Oil Emerges (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
Oil and Vinegar, Yes. Side of Beef, No. (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2003)
DETAILS Vietnam Market Tour

My culinary tour of Vietnam was organized by Nine Dragons Travel & Tours (P.O. Box 24105, Indianapolis, Ind. 46224-0105, 800-909-9050 or 317-329-0350, www.nine-dragons.com). Cost was $3,295, which included round-trip airfare from the United States to Bangkok, transportation to and within Vietnam, three meals a day, hotels, interpreters, permits and visa. Not included: beverages at lunch and dinner, departure taxes and personal expenses.

Nine Dragons also offers a two-week "Taste of Vietnam" tour that focuses on top hotels and restaurants, for $2,295 per person, not including international airfare. Date to be determined.

-- Nancy McKeon

Two, the mattresses in Vietnam -- even at some top hotels -- are rock hard. Lesson 2a: The lush French resort on the beach at Hoi An, the Victoria Hoi An, will graciously swap your bed of nails for a softer slab so that you, you decadent Westerner you, can get a decent night's sleep.

And three, if you think you're hearing the gentle putt-putt of a motor scooter right behind you while you're negotiating for dried mushrooms at the market -- which is inside a building, by the way -- you probably are. And if you don't pull in your tail, you're likely to wind up with sprocket oil on the backs of your legs.

The motor scooter lesson wasn't painful (that honor goes to the mattress) but it may have been the most unexpected learning experience of a two-week cooking class -- interrupted by flights and bus trips -- that hopscotched across north, central and southern Vietnam. From Hanoi to quaint Hoi An, imperial Hue to Ho Chi Minh City, not a day went by when my nine companions and I weren't poking through markets in search of the fabled dog meat (chó) or standing over worktables persuading rice wrappers to fold smoothly around little piles of shredded vegetables.

Our gang of 10 was pulled together by Joan Morris, an Indianapolis cooking teacher who has decided to devote herself to Vietnam and its food. She grows Vietnamese herbs and vegetables at home and travels to Vietnam as often as possible.

Then last year she collaborated with Nine Dragons Travel & Tours, an Indianapolis agency specializing in Asia, and professional tour guide Hung Pham Thanh -- Tano to us -- and put together a trip with enough market visits, restaurant meals and kitchen sessions to satisfy foodies and enough temples, museums and handicraft stops to convince us we really had left home.

"Tano, I'd like to order another whole chicken." That was my friend Pat McNees, a Bethesda writer, forking over the equivalent of $14 for a second order of something most Americans haven't had in decades, a flavorful, hardscrabble chicken. "That chicken led one hard life," Pat said, still chewing on the remains of the first scrawny bird. "But it has real taste."

We were in a "market restaurant" in Hanoi early in the trip. These down-home places are a way for young city-dwellers to re-create simple fare, a simpler time, but with money in their pockets. "Everything is fresh here," Tano had said as we filed into the cavernous indoor-outdoor space in the center of town.

But we didn't realize quite how fresh until after our lunch, as we headed down a side corridor to the restrooms and filed past the tanks (fish, frogs and snakes) and cages (rabbits and our hard-living chicken's old roost-mates).

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