There is a small corner of East London at the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland Road which is famed for its Vietnamese restaurants. If you get the chance this small strip of run down looking restaurants is one of the best places in London to taste really authentic Vietnamese cuisine. When I visited for the first time a few years ago it was the start of delicious love affair and one that had me set my heart on traveling to Vietnam so I would be able to sample to real thing.
So when I was given the opportunity to join a fantastic trip organized by Six Senses hotels I jumped at the chance to go, hell-bent on eating my way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and sampling as many culinary treats as I could along the way.
We flew on the new Vietnamese Airlines Dreamliner which has begun operating direct flights from Heathrow in and out of the country. Previously flying to Vietnam meant stopping off in Paris or an Asian hub en route so it really wasn’t an enjoyable journey, particularly for families. Flying in Premium Economy it was a very relaxing experience which I highly recommend.
Our first stop was the Six Senses Ninh Van Bay. Flying from Hanoi down to Nah Trang you then drive through this resort town to a small private dock where you’re given a wonderful Six Senses welcome of fresh towels, ginger cookies (for those lacking their sea legs) and water before boarding a small speedboat to make the 20 minute boat journey across to the peninsula of land where the resort sits.
As we sped across the deep aquamarine sea I couldn’t even make out the hotel against the thick jungle which surrounds it, heading up high into the mountains beyond. It’s only as the motors started to slow that you begin to make out the shapes of the villas and the jetty sitting proudly on the golden arc of sand in the hotel’s isolated bay. It’s a stunning arrival, bobbing gently up to the jetty you have the hotel’s bar ahead of you with its Maldivian style mesh beds overhanging the waves, full of the distinctive Six Senses colored cushions familiar to anyone who has been to Zighy Bay or Llamu in the Maldives. My villa was set directly on the beach over two storeys with the bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor and a huge open plan living area and terrace upstairs. I loved the way the villas are hidden away from the world surrounded by the jungle yet as you step up to the top floor you can see over the foliage out to sea to watch the fishing boats come past.
That night we sat down to a fantastic dinner in the hotel’s main restaurant Dining on the Bay. Hilton, the new General Manager in resort, had taken the opportunity to showcase the best of their organic vegetable garden with a fantastic starter of fresh salads and home-made tofu that actually tasted of something. The main course was fresh Nha-Trang Grouper steamed in a banana leaf and desert was fresh fruit sorbets made from fruits grown in the garden. The whole thing was incredibly fresh, healthy and delicious.
The central coast of Vietnam is best visited from April through our summer months, I was there in December which meant it was monsoon season and in the morning I woke to torrential rain and a chilly wind. The traditional Vietnamese breakfast is Pho which I have now learned is pronounced Phurh and is a delicious bowl of steaming broth filled with herbs, noodles and a thinly sliced beef which is cooked quickly with the broth… just what was needed.
With the rain continuing outside and inspired by my breakfast I signed up for the Vietnamese cooking class that afternoon. I’ve done a few hotel cookery classes in my time that have mostly involved standing around with a silly hat on and watching a professional make lunch so I was pleasantly surprised to enter the restaurant and find a table full of ingredients and gas stoves each with their own wok ready for our intrepid team of kitchen apprentices.
Our chef led us through making Vietnamese Summer Rolls which was more like origami than cooking but great fun trying to roll everything up. The next recipe was a seafood dish cooked in a special clay pot. This took some real skill and a number of the group fell by the way side, one chap cremating the huge locally dived scallops we’d been given whilst another lady abandoned her stove with a shriek as her syrupy soup came bubbling over the top of her pot. Luckily our chef had able helpers on hand to get everything going again and take over where necessary to ensure everyone was left with a dish to eat at the end of each course. The final course was a delicious hot and sour soup all washed down with excellent wine’s from the hotels impressive cellar. A great fun way to spend a rainy afternoon and I’ve already made the soup again since I’ve been home – a little piece of Vietnam back in London.
For the next stage of our trip we traveled south from Nha Trang down to Ho Chi Minh. The southern part of Vietnam was tropical and far warmer; the weather is at its best there during our winters. We only had a day to explore the city and I had my heart set on tracking down some street food, in particular a Vietnamese sandwich known as a Banh Mi. Vietnamese cuisine is all about a marriage of cultures and flavors and nothing sums it up better than this. A crunchy French Baguette stuffed with Chinese style pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and tender barbeque pork cooked over open flames across the city. We spent the morning touring the market and when we’d finished I spotted the “Manh Mi Man” on the corner with his rolling kitchen doling out lunch to a hungry and eager crowd. With the help of our guide to ensure a smooth transaction, I queued up and was rewarded with the perfect portable lunch.
Our next stop was the second and newest of the Six Senses Resorts in Vietnam. The Six Senses Con Dao is a completely different experience to its older brother, located on a tiny archipelago of islands off the southern tip of the country. You fly from Saigon on a scheduled flight which takes about 40 minutes and land into the tiny local airport of Con Ong. Driving across the island you might see a few cows and one or two local fisherman or farmers but other than that it’s a completely secluded, peaceful paradise.
The resort is extremely striking, made entirely of wooden decking bleached soft grey by the sun and the salty sea breeze. The main hub of the resort houses the two restaurants, pool and activity center as well as an ice cream parlour keeping adults and kids stocked up throughout the day. I spent a long time here and managed to try most of the flavors. Obviously an integral part of the job…
The villas stretch along the never ending strip of beach all with private pools and spectacular views out across the other uninhabited islands. Behind are a number of larger villas which would be perfect for a big party or large family trip and still only moments from the water. Our first night was great fun, spent eating traditional Vietnamese hotpot. We sat up on the main deck in front of the projector as it was movie night. Hot pot is basically fondue. You’re presented with a bubbling cauldron of hot soup and a selection of fresh seafood, meats and vegetables. Your mission should you chose to accept it is to get all of this into the pot, cooked and out again without covering yourself in soup, poisoning yourself with undercooked fish or getting into an argument with your hotpot partners over what happened to the last lobster tail.
During the day I spent the morning touring the island visiting some local temples, markets and going down to the docks which was quite an experience and great for photos with so many colors. In the afternoon I went for a walk right along the beach which has incredibly soft sand and lovely water for swimming. At the end of the beach is a look out platform built up on the cliff with panoramic views of the coast. Ask nicely and the hotel will supply eco-friendly golf balls made of fish food which can be smashed into the ocean for a bit of driving practice. For our final night we decided to go for an in villa barbeque, the hotel set this up in one of their private residences which gave us so much space to relax and with a fantastic pool to play around in before dinner. Speaking with the team there, it’s something they try and do whenever they can if resort availability allows it. The residences would be incredible for a large family or group of friends as you have so much space to relax, a huge pool and direct access down on to the beach. We entertained ourselves playing beach football and Frisbee whilst the chefs were setting up for dinner. It was the perfect way to finish the trip sat out overlooking the water as the sun set. Barbeque doesn’t do the meal justice as it was a real gourmet feast starting with innumerable salads that Ottolenghi would have been proud off and finishing with six courses from the grill from seafood to chicken and finally amazing beef before the chef’s special cheesecake rounded things off.
I knew when I left my corner of East London that I’d experience something special in Vietnam but I had no idea just what an impression this wonderful country would make.
For more information on Vietnam visit our website here or call to speak to one of our Travel Consultants on 0203 603 3555