Good Morning Vietnam

Culinary vacations are nothing new to me.  Food and travel have been inextricably linked in my mind since I was old enough to decide that trips were measured in meals and not miles.  The three-hour road trip from our home in Jackson, Mississippi, to the Gulf Coast meant eating mountains of boiled shrimp dipped in spicy cocktail sauce, cracking the claws of boiled crabs with a hammer to find the sweet lump crabmeat, and slurping oysters on the half-shell.

In my adult life, I have expanded those early road trips in the family station wagon to more exotic locales.  Food and travel…travel and food.  The markets of the world hold just as much allure for me and tell just as much of a story about the people, the history, and the culture as a museum, an art gallery or a cathedral.  My vacation albums are not filled with snapshots of me standing before architectural monuments and historical wonders, but of teeming markets in great cities and small villages.  The spice markets of Egypt ...the lively cheese markets of France…the artfully arranged vegetables of Bilbao…the great bacalao section of the Boqueria market in Barcelona…the fish markets of Hong Kong and San Francisco’s Chinatown…the olive vendors at the Saturday morning market in Nice…or the Abastos market in Oaxaca, Mexico where chiles of every description are the currency of the realm. A few years ago, a friend and I took a two-week vacation to northern California with the express purpose of bathing in natural hot springs (his vacation) and following the daily progression of small town farmers’ markets (my vacation).  Nothing, however, prepared me for the excitement, the colors, the aromas, the tastes and the spectacle of eating in Vietnam.

As a culinary voyeur, I realized long ago that the quality of the experience was greatly enhanced by the proper guide.  I have explored many marketplaces, cuisines and food regions on my own, but it was not until I took my first trip with the Culinary Institute of America and Viking Range Corporation that I at last found my culinary road map to the world’s great cuisines. I abandoned the self-centered life of the solo traveler for the opportunity to break bread and raise chopsticks with twenty like-minded souls.  I found peace, a peculiar comfort and a sense of belonging that comes with sharing the journey with people who, like me, take pictures of their food and whose trip journals are comprised of menus and favorite dishes.

My guide to the foods of Vietnam was Mai Pham, chef/owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento and food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. I first met Mai, a native of Vietnam, at a seminar at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, where she was a panelist on Asian cuisines. I mentally signed up and packed my bags for the Vietnam trip the next morning at breakfast when I tasted her sticky rice with peanuts.  And so it was with high hopes, a sense of adventure, and great anticipation of sticky rice breakfasts to come that I boarded the Korean Airways jet for the long journey from Atlanta to Seoul to Vietnam.

Mid-Air:  Somewhere Between Seoul and Saigon
The stars are so bright tonight; these very same stars that shone on Jackson, Mississippi, last night as I wandered sleeplessly in my courtyard.  And now I am halfway around the world under the same moon and the same stars. A child who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I wonder how others of my generation felt as they crossed the Eastern Sea and their aircraft began its long, slow descent on the approach to Saigon.  My brother, John, came over right before I left and humored me, without reproach, by loading my Vietnam “play list” into my Ipod.  He knows that I am hopelessly sentimental and love to immerse myself in the trip with music, movies, books and magazines. He raised his eyebrows, but made no comment about Country Joe and the Fish or Billy Joel.  He watched as I packed my briefcase with copies of Graham Green’s The Quiet American, and Nelson Demille’s contemporary Vietnam thriller, Up Country.  And now as we approached Saigon at midnight, after thirty hours of traveling, Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon came through the earphones.  “And it was dark…so dark at night. We held on to each other…like brother to brother…”  And so, with Billy Joel singing backup and the memories of Vietnam past, I landed in a new and peaceful Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

Day 1: Settling into Saigon
I am safely, securely and happily ensconced in the Park Hyatt in Saigon.  I have always found that Asian luxury hotels set the standard for the rest of the world, and this one is no exception. The hotel is spectacular…from the exotic flowers in the guest rooms and public areas to the uniforms of the hotel staff. The women are dressed in the ao dai (ow-zai), the graceful national dress of Vietnamese women consisting of a close-fitting tunic with long panels in the front and back over loose trousers. The ao dai, I soon learn, is street dress for many of the Vietnamese women – especially in the South. I opt for a restful morning and a special jet lag treatment at the hotel spa before hitting the streets of Saigon.  It’s my ritual in any new town.  I like to “get the rhythm of the city,” walk the streets, smell the air and catch the vibe of a new place.  It’s not hard to get the rhythm of Saigon. It’s a crazy, chaotic, lively rhythm moving to the hum and whir of motorbikes, mopeds and motorcycles.  Someone said that there are 4 million motorbikes and motorcycles in Saigon, and very few cars.   Crossing the street is an exercise in faith and not for the weak of heart. It is pure sport with the total absence, in most places, of anything resembling a traffic signal. Traffic races towards you from every direction at startling speeds, and just when you think you are surely going to die, a gap magically appears in the traffic and you give thanks that you are still in one piece.  Adding to moto-madness is yet another favored form of transportation in Saigon – the cyclo.  Cyclos are three wheeled rickshaws, operated by pedal power, with a seat attached to the front. Cyclo driving is a very competitive business, and it’s hard to walk the streets without attracting the attention of groups of weather-beaten old men leaning against their cyclos calling, “Hey lady, want a ride?”  Before the Vietnam War, many of the cyclo drivers were doctors, teachers, journalists or soldiers.  After the cease-fire, many of them were stripped of their citizenship and sent to re-education camps because they sided with the Americans and the army of South Vietnam.  The colorful culture of the cyclo drivers is a part of the rich fabric of Saigon life.

I end my day with our first “group meeting.”  We’re off to a promising start as I immediately sense a high-spiritedness and sense of culinary adventure.  We collectively swarm the table where our tour leader, Mai Pham, has piled strange and mysterious Vietnamese herbs and alien fruits.  We dive in and are soon comparing the unusual and unfamiliar tastes and textures.  I know I’m going to get along just fine with these folks!

Day 2: Forever "Pho"
In my diary, February 22, 2006, is titled “the day I learned about pho.”  It is an important day…a “red letter day” of sorts…and one that I will file away in my imaginary culinary card catalog as a mountaintop epicurean experience.  Our first morning as a group in Saigon begins at a noisy, local noodle shop with a steaming bowl of pho, Vietnam’s beloved rice noodle soup with beef.  It is a hearty, full and balanced meal in a bowl.  I had timidly ordered pho in the United States, but never understood or experienced the complexity of the dish or the ritual that accompanies it.  The dish, pho (pronounced “fuh”), actually originated in Hanoi, but was enthusiastically adapted by southerners, who embellished it with their own herbs and spices. Along with our steaming bowls of pho, we were served platters piled with fresh herbs such as basil, coriander and saw-leaf.  Garnishes of lime wedges, fresh chiles, chili sauce and bean sauce were also proffered.  The shop was filled with a cross section of Saigon life. Buttoned-down businessmen, elegant professional women dressed in stilettos and ao dai, laborers, women and babies.  I watched closely to take my cues on how to eat the dish.  Chopsticks and flat aluminum spoons were grabbed from containers on the table and dusted off.  When the pho arrived, heads bent over the steaming bowls to inhale the aroma.  After garnishing with herbs, lime and chiles, the slurping began… spoon in one hand to dip the broth and chopsticks in the others to lift the noodles, beef, bean sprouts and herbs to the mouth.  I am a convert.  Goodbye chicken noodle soup. For me, it is pho…forever.

And that was only breakfast.  Breakfast is simple, like pho.  Baguettes, from the French influence are always available, and the Vietnamese drink coffee and tea.  Lunch in modern Vietnam is many times “on the go” and the abundance of street food makes it easy to eat well and often.  Dinner is time for families to get together around the table.  Our day was no exception.  After pho, we pressed on to the Ben Thanh Market, the culinary epicenter of Saigon, to tour the stalls, study the fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and fish, and have a delicious market stall lunch. After cooking demonstrations and a fish sauce tasting, we dined at one of the hot new Vietnamese restaurants, Ngon, an old French villa turned into a street food bazaar.  How do I explain that eating and drinking and tasting are REALLY hard work?

Day 3: The Street Foods of Saigon
This is what I came for – to learn about street food – and I am not disappointed.  I wait eagerly by the front door of our hotel to meet the group for a street-side breakfast of sticky rice.  I have learned from trips to Mexico, Spain and now Vietnam, that one of the great benefits of traveling with the CIA is that these folks KNOW street food.  They have checked out and vetted the vendors we visit, and know who is cooking the best, the freshest, and the cleanest food (a real bonus in countries like Vietnam). It’s early morning, and I meet Mai Pham coming back into the hotel long before our scheduled departure.  Mai has already been in the streets, checking the location of the elusive “sticky rice lady,” a cook whose famous dish of sticky rice and mung bean paste Mai has been eating for over 30 years. The “sticky rice lady” sometimes moves from place to place at the insistence of the local police who keep the street corners clear and the vendors spread out.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  She might be there; she might not…and heaven forbid, she could be sold out by the time we get there.

Street food is to Vietnam what ping pong is to China.  It’s what baseball is to Cuba, or soccer to Brazil.  It is for all intents and purposes, the national sport.  It is omnipresent, pervasive and enveloping.  Street food vendors of every description populate Vietnam – from the fruit lady balancing two low baskets filled with lychees on a cane pole to the man with the make-shift charcoal burner in the bicycle basket.  The Vietnamese will cook and eat everywhere.  They are inveterate and adventuresome snackers, moving from vendor to vendor, and discussing and debating who makes the best of a certain dish.

This morning’s second breakfast of sticky rice turns out to be my favorite meal of the trip.  When it’s my turn, the sticky rice lady squatting under the blue umbrella gives me a little bundle – it is sticky rice, mung bean paste, peanuts and grated coconut wrapped in a square of newspaper print.  I eat it with a flat wooden ice cream spoon and after the first bite, I close my eyes – hoping that somehow it will help imprint the memory of these flavors.

The remainder of the day is spent in the countryside, about an hour and a half from town.  Here, in two tiny villages, we learn the art of noodle making and rice paper making from two local families who have become friends of Mai.  We are welcomed into their homes and their lives, and the entire village gathers around while we watch them demonstrate the ancient art of making rice noodles.  The rice is fermented, boiled, and then extruded through a metal die.  The pressing is done in a time-tested manner with the die set into a hole in a wooden bench.  Pressure is applied by father and son sitting on a wooden lever which they ride down as the rice noodles emerge from the die.  Our lunch at a local restaurant is a tasty, tangy papaya salad made by Mai and her friend, Trang, with the very noodles we watched being made.  I will never look at a rice noodle or a piece of rice paper without thinking of these people and their artistry.  In these modern times, we are so far removed from the source of the products on our everyday tables that we’ve lost sight of the people, the families, the skill, and the artistry.  We need to remember to give thanks.

Day 4: A Day in Da Nang, A Night on Sunrise Beach
Our mission is to study the foods of Vietnam – the South, the Central and the North.  We are reluctant to leave scintillating Saigon and the spicy south, but are somewhat pacified with promises of a cooler climate and sandy beaches. Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth largest city, was the port of entry for the first American military landing in 1965 and the site of a major American airbase.  Our first meal in the central region is at Apsara, a fine dining restaurant in an old villa in the center of town. We can immediately taste the shift in the flavor palate from the south.  In this cooler climate, the food is heavier and spicier, with more assertive seasonings and an abundance of chiles.  No longer novices, we are beginning to be discerning in our exploration of Vietnamese cuisine.  At lunch, we debate the merits of Aspara’s ginger-lime dipping sauce as compared to one we tasted in Saigon.  We are vocal about our favorite version of mango salad and debate the merits of spring rolls.  Our meals are familial and lively as we have begun to meld together as a group.

The words “Five-Star Hotel” are music to my ears.  I am a hotel princess, and the opportunity to stay at the Five-Star Furama Hotel on China Beach is a welcome one.  I will roll with the best of them, and no one relishes the simple joys of life like sitting on a street corner and eating with chopsticks from the common bowl as I do. But, I like to count the threads on my sheets as I am counting sheep, and the Furama holds great promise.  The view of Monkey Mountain is breathtaking, and the beach is a movie set just waiting for a Hollywood director to call “Lights, camera, action.”  I embark on an afternoon beach walk with my friend, Ted, and in typical American fashion, we attack the beach in exercise clothes, jogging shoes, pedometers and a sense of aerobic purpose.  On our five kilometer walk, we are greeted by scores of Vietnamese who walk beside us, run behind us, throw volleyballs our way to enlist us in their games and generally try to include us in the festive spirit of China Beach life.  “Hello American,” they say.  “How are you?” … they practice their English.  Always on guard for signs of wartime resentment and hatred, their courtesy and friendliness takes me by surprise.  I learn that modern Vietnam is a country of 82 million people, and 80% of them are under 30.  What an amazing statistic!  After 100 years of war and the American withdrawal, the population of Vietnam boomed. The people we encounter on the beach, for the most part, are young…well younger than I… but even the older Vietnamese are welcoming and inviting.  This trip is not just about food; it’s about the changing nature of the world, of people, and of lives that are more similar than different.  The beach at Da Nang is, for me, not only a place to experience the cuisine of central Vietnam, as we do on a cooking lesson and dinner under an Asian moon, but to read the faces and exchange child-like expressions of goodwill in Vietnamese and English with the people on this beach.

Day 5: Happiniess in Hoi An
The riverside town of Hoi An oozes beauty and charm.  This is Vietnam for visitors, and I am lucky to be among them. This is the Vietnam of postcards and movies filled with characters from central casting, and there is none more vivid than Ms. Vy (pronounced “V”), our guide and cooking school teacher. She is young, beautiful, sexy, and very entrepreneurial. In practiced English, she introduces herself as “Ms. V…the V stands for Victory.”  It is at that moment that I know we have met a Vietnamese woman to be reckoned with. She is Katie Couric and Martha Stewart rolled into one – reporting on the Vietnam of 2006, addressing tough issues here-to-fore untouched by our guides but always on our minds (like “do Vietnamese people really eat dog?”) while filleting fish and rolling them in banana leaves and deftly slicing green mangos with a machete.  All of this is accomplished without chipping her manicure and being well balanced on her three-inch stiletto heels.  I have seen and met a few of these incredible women since landing in Saigon.  Today’s Vietnam is a country of remarkable opportunity for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.  Literally thousands of young Vietnamese-Americans (known as Viet-Kieu) are returning to the country of their heritage because of opportunities to participate in the growth of this dynamic country.  It is obvious that Ms. “V,” like many of the young “Viet Kieu,” has studied the economic landscape and planted her flag in the sand.  She runs a successful restaurant, the Cargo Club, a cooking school, and is a much sought after tour guide in scenic Hoi An.  Our class is nothing short of ingenious with methods of teaching and participating that are new to me – a cooking school veteran of 25 years.  I applaud Ms. V and hope that the Vietnamese equivalent of Food Network TV has her squarely in their sights.

Day 6: Hue, The Imperial Capital
The ride to the ancient imperial capital of Hue (pronounced Hu-Way) is breathtaking.  There are mountains; there are rice paddies; there is farming; there are catfish farms. I am from the Mississippi Delta and catfish is one of our major crops. Our economy depends on it.  The Vietnamese are our major competitors with their basa (which is the name for the Vietnamese species of catfish) and here I am, an inquisitive traitor in Vietnam’s catfish country.  I slink down in my bus seat as our Hanoi-based guide talks about the unfair catfish competition with the American Mississippi Delta, and how the recent tariffs on Vietnamese catfish have hurt the people of this region.  I feel like a spy as we stop on the side of the road in front of a catfish farm, and I discreetly take photographs with my miniature digital camera.  I am now uncomfortably tethered to two sides of the globe, and the issues that once seemed so “foreign” suddenly take on dramatic importance with personal consequences on both sides. So much for a global economy.

Another highlight of the day is a proverbial “bump on the road.”  We ask the bus to stop as we see a panorama of rice paddies in the distance with water buffalo and workers transplanting rice seedlings in the paddies.  As we wander off the bus to take pictures, Mai, our guide and leader, ambles over to a nearby farm.  After chatting with the young farmer and his wife, Mai negotiates a visit to their simple farmhouse.  Back on the bus, we discuss that this is why we came with the CIA. So much of the richness of this trip is that we experience the “unexpected” and are allowed into the homes and lives of everyday Vietnamese.  It turns out that we are the first Americans the family has ever met, and they are honored to open their home to us.  We tour their bedroom, complete with a board bed and mosquito netting, which they show with pride, and their simple kitchen that consists of a wood fire and a wok.  We meet the extended family and pet the family water buffalo.  So what if we are late for our four-star French hotel in Hue?

Our first dinner in Hue is in an elegant and ancient noble home that has miraculously been spared from the fierce fighting and bombing of the Vietnam war. Hue was hard-hit. The owners have graciously allowed us to use their home for our cooking school and dinner. Once again, Mai and her friend, Trang, a native of Hue, do a beautiful job of introducing the imperial cuisine of Hue.  Characterized by intricate carvings and delicate details, we learn the culinary traditions of the imperial palace.  What a feast! What a setting! What a day of contrasts!

Day 7: Way Up North in Hue
Hue is on the Perfume River, and we start the day with a cruise to a temple. It is another day of diversity, and we go from low cuisine to haute cuisines. We experience the street food and the royal food of Hue in only a matter of minutes. Street food is a local specialty called Banh Khoai, which is a mini-omelette stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts. The setting is typical “street food” and the sight of a pet rat lolling under a table is unsettling to some of the group. I am, as usual, focused on the food and pay it no mind. Our lunch, the haute cuisine, is imperial in every way with carved vegetables, fruits and an exotic marzipan-type dessert. Late in the afternoon, we visit a tofu factory. The word “factory” is loosely applied as we discover an artisan operation, which is more like a lean-to shed behind a house with a wood stove and kettle. The dipper for the boiling concoction is a hardhat mounted to a board. It ably serves as a ladle to transfer the boiling concoction to the mold, which shapes it into tofu. We end the evening in a surreal and peaceful setting – at Dong Thuyen pagoda and monastery – where we pray, participate in a vegetarian cooking class, and then eat with the young women who will become nuns.

Day 8: From Hue to Hanoi
Once again, we are reluctant to board the airplane that takes us from the imperial capital of Hue to Hanoi. There is still much to be explored in Hue, and I, for one, have a sense of unease about flying to the North.  Hanoi.  I feel like the Jane Fonda of the new millennium, and I wonder how the North Vietnamese will feel about me?   I touch my wrist and remember the metal bracelet I wore as a high school student in the late ‘60s in remembrance of my friend’s uncle, a naval pilot, who was a prisoner of war in Hanoi.  I am expecting a cool reception in a cool Hanoi.

Hanoi turns out to be the biggest surprise of the trip. Immediately, I love this city. Our hotel is the Metropole, an elegant and historic hotel in downtown Hanoi.  Jane Fonda stayed here, and so am I.  I wonder if Jane had a giant whirlpool bathtub, or if this is just a sign of the recent Sofitel renovation.  As a hotel princess and a hotel professional, I have stayed in fine hotels around the world, but somehow the Metropole epitomizes everything I have come to treasure in a luxury hotel.  It defines luxury, not in an ostentatious way, but in its character, its people, and its “vibe.” Today is not so much an “eating” day as a “culture” day.  We check into our hotel and visit the Fine Arts Museum where I buy two paintings.  We have cocktails with ex-pat Suzanne Lecht at her contemporary gallery – Art Vietnam – before dinner at one of Hanoi’s much talked-about restaurants, Wild Rice. I am happy to be a part of Hanoi…a Hanoi I never dreamed of.

Day 9: Hanoi - City of the North
And so we complete the circle.  We are in Hanoi, the birthplace of the Vietnamese national dish, “pho.” It is only fitting that our first full day in Hanoi starts with a pho breakfast so we can compare the dishes of the south and the north. Hanoi pho is different from that of Saigon. It is more straight-forward and unadorned, as are the people who slurp it. Pure serendipity would have it that the noodle factory where the noodles for our morning pho are made is next door.  It is another “CIA Food Moment” as we walk down a long alleyway into the noodle factory.  An entrepreneurial Hanoi family has leveraged artisan rice noodle making into an American college experience for one child and proudly trains the others in the family business.  The process is labor intensive and ancient. The rice is fermented and distilled into a watery rice paste that is cooked (tortilla style) over a steaming pot of water stretched with cheesecloth-like material.  The rice potion is ladled over the cheesecloth and cooked in a round.  It is then removed with a wooden rolling pin and hung on PVC pipe to dry.  It is then rolled through a pasta machine-like contraption where it is cut in noodles.  We are enchanted, amazed, and collectively glad we are lucky enough to experience this “behind the scenes” access.  We feel like groupies with an “all access backstage pass” to the Rolling Stones.  We have reached the inner sanctum.

After a mid-morning visit to Hang Be market where we study the fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood of the north, we enjoy lunch at a fourth floor walk-up at Bun Cha, one of Hanoi’s not-to-be-missed lunch places. Later that evening, we venture to the suburbs of Hanoi across the Red River where we travel to Moon River, a unique boutique hotel with a dining room situated in a beautifully restored traditional community hall that was moved to its present site.  We are treated to a cooking class and dinner by Mai and Cam Van, Vietnam’s Julia Child.

Day 10: Ha Long Bay - The Vietnam of Dreams
Ha Long Bay, with its magical limestone formations arising out of the blue waters, is one of Vietnam’s wonders. This natural wonder features 3,000 limestone peaks that soar from the Gulf of Tonkin. It is the stuff of movies and legends, and our group has eagerly looked forward to this day. The surprise, however, is in the three-hour journey to Ha Long Bay. Enroute, we stop at a farming community in the Red River Valley where we see rice farmers wading in the paddies and transplanting rice seedlings. On a trip several months before to research our culinary excursion, Mai and her husband Greg randomly stopped here to watch the rice planting. They encountered a farmer, Mr. Son, who invited them, and consequently our group, to his home. It is a highlight of the trip for us as we wander through a North Vietnamese farming village and experience the home, rice farm, and fish farm of this family. The entire village stops work and joins us as we wander through the village. It is a workshop in  “international relations” at its most basic as culinary explorers hold babies, pet family pigs, drink tea, and pick loofa squash that shade the family catfish pond.  Later in the day, the fresh picked squash becomes an integral part of our lunch on Ha Long Bay. Sailing on the bay in a junk, we stop at a floating fish farm where Mai and Trang buy prawns and fish for our lunch.  On seemingly a moment’s notice, they prepare a five-course meal that is one of the culinary highlights of our trip. It is a magical way to end a journey that started ten days ago in Saigon.

Tired and happy, we return to Hanoi just in time for a memorable “one dish” evening meal at Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, one that R.W. Apple of the New York Times, heralds as one of his most memorable meals.  I am in awe of this group of people who are never too tired to experience a new taste sensation.  We are tired, but we are willing.

Day 11: Hanoi
Our last day in Vietnam is an emotional one. I awake at 6:00 a.m. to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of town. It is here that Hanoians practice badminton, Tai Chi, American aerobics, fan dancing and other forms of exercise.  It is “art in motion,” and it is my last day to experience it.  I have been to the lake every morning of my visit to Hanoi and am surprised that many of the Vietnamese greet me with a nod of recognition.   I will miss them.  I will miss the groups of 70 and 80-year old women who perform precision fan dances like high school drill teams.  I will miss the badminton players.  I will miss the Hanoi street life. I make promises to myself that I will come back…stay a while…learn the language….and engage in some activity that will help the understanding between our two countries.   On one level, I am renting an apartment in Hanoi and enrolling in language classes for foreigners, and on another level, I know that this is wishful thinking and not a real possibility in my comfortable, “white bread” status-quo world.

Today is one of those “yin-yang” days.  The pull of the west; the allure of the east. The possible versus the impossible. We end the substance of our CIA-Viking culinary tour at a place that I would not have chosen. It is neither sublime street food nor culinary “Mecca.”  It is, instead, a place called KOTO, translated as “know one, teach one.” It is here that the journey of thousands of miles and the experience of the past 11 days reaches its pinnacle…and I, for one, am blindsided. The restaurant where we meet for lunch is a cooking school that trains homeless youths. The food is admirable; the service sublime; and the experience is memorable. The young people who serve us and cook for us are by turns talented, smart, dedicated, hard working, earnest, and articulate (in English). They are the “new Vietnam.” With a 98% rate of achievement in this strenuous program, they will carry the magic of the cuisine and the culture into the future. They are the keepers of the flame. Each of the members of our group leaves KOTO with a sense of wonder and of individual purpose.

Day 12: Leaving Vietnam
It’s hard to leave this place, this country. It’s hard to leave Vietnam. For me, it’s no longer just the cuisine that I am interested in. Of course, I am all in favor of “lemongrass for all” but I’ve come away with so much more.  Food is not created in a vacuum. It is the land, the people, the culture, and the history that have created this complex and ethereal cuisine.

My leaving ritual is prescribed. I awake before the sun rises so I can be on the lake and watch the badminton games, the Tai Chi and the fan dances. I am the first in the dining room at the Metropole to enjoy the handmade rice crepes, homemade yogurt and mango preserves for my baguettes. I say goodbye to Hanoi and to Vietnam with my choice of breakfast foods and my morning walk.  It’s my way.

Saying goodbye to twenty new friends is even more difficult. Hopefully we will talk and e-mail of “spring rolls past.”  Hopefully, we will entertain each other with menus and dishes and culinary successes and failures.  We will remember these days in Vietnam, that the world is more alike than different, that food can be the catalyst to join us around a common table, and that we are more alike than different.

Note: This article was from the 2006 culinary adventure to Vietnam.