ADF IS Vietnam Culinary Tour
From the 27th until the 29th of August there were no classes due to the declared holidays. National Heroes Day fell on the 29th, a Monday, and the Eid’l Fitr or the End of Ramadan celebration on the 30th, a Tuesday. What can one do when rare opportunities such as this come up? Why, be merry and have a vacation! The ADF-International Society certainly did and in the process gained an unforgettable learning experience.
In a span of three days and two nights, our group of thirteen was composed of hungry CA students who went on a voyage to the land of Pho, the Petite Paris of the East, in search of the famed, authentic Golden Bowl of Vietnamese wonder.
Hyperbole aside, our culinary trip to Vietnam, which had been planned several weeks and a month prior, had been short, but sufficient enough to experience the Vietnam culture with its heavy French influence as well as take a glimpse of their equally rich history. Culinary tours are part of the organization’s activities; the purpose of which is to broaden the horizons and learning experiences of its members. Through food, which is a cultural medium, a chunk of a country or nation’s timeless culture is experienced first-hand. It is the organization’s goal to hold more culinary experiences among the members, be it held here in the country or abroad.
We are very much grateful to Chef See Cheong Yan and Chef Marc Chalopin, our culinary dean and moderator, respectively, for allowing this trip to come to fruition. Also, to the ADF-IS President Olaf Gotladera, who exerted such effort in managing the paper works for the pre-departure processes. Because of them, we were able to depart without worries.
As our plane approached Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and we got our first glimpse of the city, we jokingly said we’d might as well stay on the plane and return to Manila. It looked like Metro Manila from afar hence our eerie déjà vu. But as soon as we got out of the airport, the difference was apparent and distinguishable, especially the colossal number of motorcycles. They were aplenty! Although the roads were wide enough for automobiles such as cars and big buses, they still seemed small. Given the architectural pattern or blueprint from the French, the structures are closely built side by side, appearing small and compact, and this creates the impression that they’re small. But they aren’t really.
Moving on, we were picked up from the airport by bus care of Ben Than Tours. Our tour guide was Mr. Huang, a very kind and well-informed native. On our trip to the hotel, he briefly and industriously discussed facts about Vietnam such as how it came to be. We stayed at a quaint yet inviting lodging establishment, the Kingston Hotel. Luckily, the hotel is strategically located a few meters away from the Ben Than Market, the main marketplace, where a cornucopia of culinary delights and aesthetic household & souvenir pieces are found.
After settling into the hotel, the afternoon of our arrival day was when we were toured around the city, with our tour guide of course; we weren’t out gallivanting on our own just yet. First up on our itinerary was of course: our welcome lunch feast! We dined at a restaurant named Thanh Tra. We had a total of nine dishes, all of which consisted of seafood, pork, tofu, vegetables and seasonal fruits; with the latter served with spiced salt, which complemented its taste well enough. This was our first taste (literally) of local food. Next up, with our bellies all stuffed and yearning for some siesta time, was the square where the Holy Virgin Cathedral (which is also called the Notre Dame Cathedral) and the City Post Office were located. These wonderful and skillfully designed structures are well-known landmarks and tourist spots of Ho Chi Minh City. We even chanced upon a betrothed couple having their pre-wedding photos taken at this landmark square also known as “Petite Paris”. It really was a beautiful spot for photo shoots and, not surprisingly, it felt like we were somewhere in France especially since the red bricks used to build the cathedral are all imported from Marseilles, France.
Our next stop was also a landmark, Toan Quyen Palace. It’s now called the Independence Palace or the Reunification Palace. This wide palace had been built in the year 1868 during the French occupation. Later on, during the Indo-Chinese war with the Americans, the palace was inaugurated in the year 1967. The immensity of this building from the outside only showed little of what was in store. Beautiful classic art and furniture pieces, all of which had been used by the past governments, were well preserved and displayed for public viewing. Also exhibited in this palace are the different old Vietnamese maps and communication equipment used during the war. What got us all interested in—and this was where we lingered the longest—was the palace kitchen. It was surreal to know that they already had a floor-mounted planetary mixer then and even an island stove! Talk about timeless.
After that tiring ascent all the way to the palace rooftop and down to the basement, we just had to cool down. What better way to do that than to eat ice cream? Mr. Huang brought us to this nifty ice cream joint called Kem Bach Dang, well known for its really good delicacy. Their bestseller was this coconut ice cream loaded with fruits and served in a petite coconut shell. It was definitely mouth-watering. Refreshed and ready for another go, we marched our way to the square where the City Hall was. Perhaps we were just unaccustomed to French-inspired architecture for government establishments that to us it looked more like a museum than a city hall. After several photo shots taken, we went to the Tax Market, a mini-mall where several trinkets and such can be found. The grocery store inside was where we first bought our coffee and local goods for pasalubong.
After spending quite a long while inside the mini-mall, we went out to eat (yet again) our last meal for the day. At a restaurant-bar called Tudo Liberty was where we were brought. Compared to where we had our lunch, this was clearly a step-up in terms of ambience and food quality. We were served a total of six dishes comprised of their famed spring rolls, meats, vegetables, and seasonal fruits. After expressing our gratitude for the superb meal, we returned back to our hotel and called it a day. Some were already too tired to go out that night (myself included) but the others were still quite energetic for an evening stroll, so off they went.
The next morning was bright and perfect. The hotel’s breakfast buffet was quite a feast. We were very glad to have woken up in this splendid city. We were also quite excited because our cooking class that day was really the highlight of the practical side of this culinary trip.
We met up with the dashing Chef Phuang at Ben Than Market. He gave us a brief run through as to what we would be cooking and said that we would be buying some ingredients for each recipe. This was when we experienced how it was to shop in Ben Than. Since Vietnamese cuisine calls for various vegetables that most of us weren’t familiar with or accustomed to, Chef Phuang introduced them to us. We got to see, taste, sniff and feel vegetables such as “Rau Ram” (Polygonum leaf), “Hun Cay”, Erygium, Long Coriander and a handful more. Aside from vegetables, parallel to where the greens are, we were also shown several fish species, from catfish and eels as well as lobsters and crabs. There were also some snails and live frogs. Two extraordinary feats that we got to observe were: one, how impressively one lady was removing the scales from a fish as if she was merely peeling some fruit; and, secondly, how another lady was deboning a live eel. We were astounded by such display of skills. Afterwards, we moved on to the dry goods area particularly where the spices are. They had Anise all the way down to Vanilla. You name it. When that was done, we headed straight to where the cooking class would take place.
The “school” was above the Hua Tuc Restaurant, which hosted the cooking class. We were given our own place complete with an apron, very lightweight prepping equipment, and a towel to name a few. It wasn’t exactly like the classes we get to experience in school, but the experience was enriching nonetheless. Despite the light and friendly atmosphere, Chef Phuang still made sure there was order and adherence to proper techniques and all—typical of a well-rounded Chef. We prepared traditional local dishes such as fried spring rolls with seafood and taro (complete with the fish sauce dip), banana blossoms salad with shredded chicken and the infamous Pho Bo or beef noodle soup. Chef Phuang was generous enough to share several cooking tips and, at the end of the session, he handed us copies of the recipes, so we could do it again when we fly back home. Did I mention we got to eat each dish we prepared? That was the best part, for sure.
After the cooking session, we had the afternoon all to ourselves. We were dropped off at Saigon Center, a shopping place a la Tutuban Mall where cheaper apparel and countless merchandise are found. Haggle here and haggle there. Later, we each went our own way and roamed around the city and spent our time ingesting the sights, sounds and the experience. One landmark that I got to visit was the Bitexco Financial Tower where the Saigon Skydeck, located on its 49th floor, was. The skydeck had an excellent, far-fletching view of Ho Chi Minh City, including the historical Saigon River. According to what was stated on the brochure handed out to me before I entered, Bitexco Financial Tower “stands as a symbol of resurgence of Ho Chi Minh City and the resurgence of Vietnam.”
Ho Chi Minh City was even more majestic at night. Gay city lights livened up each building in sight. Later that evening, the group got a taste of Saigon’s vibrant nightlife. One of the most famous nightspots in the area was Lush Bar. Although not everyone was able to go, those who did certainly had a blast. According to Olaf, Lush “…is ahip club for the young and the young at heart. This is the go-to place for most expatriates so they won’t be ripped off [their cash]. Thank God we didn’t [experience that]. It was highly recommended by a friend-chef.”
Day 3: Last Day
Our final day in Vietnam was spent shopping at Ben Than Market. We explored it as much as we could, haggled as much as we could and went back to the hotel tired, but satisfied. Some of us even went farther out of the area just to go to places they had missed.
Alas, the time came when the bus to pick us up from the hotel and bring us to the airport. We were all feeling quite sluggish then because we knew the end of our vacation was nigh. But much to our delight, we had one more stop before we got dropped off at the airport. Mr. Huang promised to bring us to the oldest Pho restaurant in the area. It was called Pho Hoa. The restaurant was very casual and simple in terms of design but their signature Pho certainly did compensate for the lack of color and relaxing ambience. It was the best of all that we tasted! The noodles, broth, vegetables were a delight. We certainly got out of the restaurant very satisfied and content. We then rushed to the airport, did some last minute shopping for souvenirs and got on the plane bound for Manila.
So the thirteen hungry warrior-students finally found the Golden Bowl of Pho and ate every ounce of its contents, then-famished stomachs satisfied beyond belief. They even got pasalubong. And with that, our journey ended.