Vietnam 2020 travelogue!

Beautiful Bun at the Blue Butterfly

People have asked me why exactly I wanted to come to Vietnam. It was a combination of things really but food was high up there. Given the previous days revelation about the tourist sites I’d done a slight pivot and booked a cooking class recommended in a couple places for the day instead of leaving it until later in the trip as originally planned. After enjoying the ones I’d done in Thailand so much it seemed a no brainer. This one took place right inside the restaurant with the head chef and involved a market trip and four dishes particular (at least these variations) to the Ha Noi area.

It was an early start though, not that that really mattered as I have yet to be able to sleep in here at all even when trying. For whatever reason they insisted on doing hotel pickup even though it was all of two blocks away and I’d walked past it at least 3 times at this point. It turned out my ‘pickup’ was the chef walking over to get me just as I finished my breakfast and we walked back together to the Blue Butterfly, built into a couple levels of a pretty, ancient house.

The Blue Butterfly

His name was Hung, but he informed us that his friends called him ‘Pickle’ because of how he smelled in a sweaty kitchen and that we could call him Hung Pickle if we liked (pause a moment for your childish giggle.) Rounding out our small group were: another Canadian, a young kid from Montreal riding a motorbike from Ho Chi Minh City to the North. An outback station nurse from Australia. And a Brit/French couple now living in Hong Kong who were just over for a few days to get some dental work done (apparently that’s a thing.)

Pho Phixins

Hung Pickle started us off making the broth for Pho Bo (excuse the lack of proper letters any Viet readers as this keyboard is a nightmare for trying) from scratch. Normally this would be left going for much longer but we started it first so it got a few hours before we ate at least. Basically just a stack of bones and a giant tea strainer thing full of herbs and spices including a little bit of ha long bay sea worm as Hung was from Ha Long. I can’t imagine that’s an ingredient I’ll find at home.


Broth bubbling away we headed out to the central Ha Noi food market which Hung said catered to most of the restaurants in the city. It was a fascinating place, much more hectic than the ones I’d visited in Bangkok. Apparently (and I read this in a guide book as well) many of the smaller stall folks are the actual farmers who grow the products and Hung seemed to be trying to buy from these (as much as I could tell.) Along the way he had us try a bunch of produce including some deliciously juicy red dragonfruit as well as a ginger sticky rice chew that felt like it would have been a solid pick me up for a wobbly stomach. We ended up picking up most of our herbs, some veggies, some fresh rice noodles and paper and a big hunk of pork shoulder.

Beans and Bean-adjacent things
Rolls have been rolled

We started by making Ha Noi style spring rolls which were similar to the ones I’ve made at home before, though with the rice paper being so fresh no soaking was necessary which made the whole process more speed friendly. I’d love to say mine were massively better than everyone else’s but it’s been a while since I made them so I will only say they were solid. We fried them up then set them aside for another high temp fry just before eating.

Banana Flower

Next up was Banana flower salad. In many ways this was quite similar to Som Tam in thailand (and indeed he indicated you could make it with green papaya or mango.) The flower is from the outer leaves of the big flower pods sliced thinly so they form springy curls. The dressing is a similar concoction of vinegar and lime and fish sauce and it’s all topped with peanut and (optionally) chicken.

Banana Flower Salad

Lastly was the Bun Cha which is the dish that Obama and Bourdain noshed on in Ha Noi. It’s fairly simple, rice noodles and herbs with a combo of charbroiled pork slices and meatballs served with a dipping sauce but very tasty. Hung put a few of us to work hand mincing the pork for the meatballs then built up a charcoal fire in his cooking station in order to cook the two racks.

Bun Cha Patties and Slices

Once all the work was done we settled down in the restaurant with a beer and devoured our food while having a discussion about medical care, the corona virus hysteria and China in general as the Hong Kong couple had previously lived in Shanghai and was saying how they were pleased to be in HK for this particular crisis. The food was delicious, the Bun Cha in particular.

End Results (not pictures: Pho Bo Tay as we had that after)

That said, overall as an experience it didn’t quite measure up to either of the Thai classes, mostly because this was only about 50% hands on most of which was prep work. Both thai classes had individual cooking stations and we did pretty much 90% of everything. This one was also a bit more expensive but I don’t begrudge that, it was still a bargain. The five of us all sat talking for a while but eventually it became clear that the staff wanted to shut up for the post lunch/pre dinner cleanup/break so we wished each other good travels and headed onward.

Our Crew

After a break back in the room to digest and confirm the times for the boat pickup the next day. I decided to see if the Water Puppet theatre was open as one of the classmates had said it was an interesting production. Given it was all of I think 10 bucks for the best seat in the house I figured why not. You’re seated in this odd auditorium with what looks like a deep pool at the front with unfamiliar musical instruments perched in the wings and a screen in behind. Out comes a band and suddenly odd puppet figures emerge from behind the screen or just directly from other the waves. I found out after that there is an english audio guide to the process but a good portion of them were self explanatory. Intricate puppets, often more animated than you expect are controlled via mechanisms under the water and appear to either swim through it or dance above it depending on the story. Definitely worth the money but I was glad the show was only about 45 minutes as the concept was wearing a bit thin after a while. Ymmv of course and the audio guide might have helped.

water puppets

Much to my frustration I emerged to see people walking across the lake bridge to the Pagoda as the theatre was on the lake front. A quick glance at my phone confirmed that yes everything had reopened earlier that day after being ‘sprayed’ the day before. I would have hopped a cab earlier to check out a few of the closed spots had I known, now I was leaving the next day and when I returned it would be sunday when some of the spots regularly close anyway. ARGH. I’ll be back in Hanoi at the end of the trip as I fly out of here but was hoping to cut it reasonably close and/or use it as a base for a day trip or two.

I actually tried to go check out the Obama/Bourdain bun cha place for dinner after that but it was a longer walk than expected and I arrived just as they were closing. I ended up just taking a long sweaty walk in the muggy weather and finished my night at a place called Chopsticks another classmate had recommended which did updated modern takes on local faves. The place was absolutely packed, by far the busiest I’d seen a restaurant in the old quarter but I managed to scround a place at the bar. I ended up having Bun Cha again anyway as theirs had some flourishes on it including sous vide pork belly in place of the charbroiled pork. The waiter somewhat sheepishly told me that they were out of Chopsticks (at a place called Chopsticks GASP) but the food was excellent and they had a great local cider.

I’m going to leave this a short post as the boat trip is best treated as a whole, thanks for reading and shoot me a note if you have any questions or recommendations as I’m still here two weeks.

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