Vietnamese noodle-and-meat pho is enjoyable at both street-food stalls and five-star hotels. iStockphoto.com
Vietnamese noodle-and-meat pho is enjoyable at both street-food stalls and five-star hotels. iStockphoto.com



It's 1.45 on a rainy afternoon in Hanoi and we are on the cusp of a spiritual experience. Outside, in the city's wonderfully chaotic Old Quarter, bikes whizz by, splashing puddles, and people hurry past the window clutching brightly coloured umbrellas. Inside this busy little restaurant on Ma May street, a no-frills but perennially popular establishment called New Day, my wife and I are about to have our first proper taste of Vietnamese food.

We have been looking forward to this moment for years. Living in London, we are regular visitors to a strip of Vietnamese restaurants along Kingsland Road in the east of the city. There, we’ve enjoyed some memorable dishes – sea bass with fish sauce and mango at Mien Tay, soft-shell crab and lotus-stem salad at Viet Grill – but we always felt we were missing out on the full experience. To truly understand Vietnamese cuisine, to savour the real deal, you’ve got to make a journey to the source.

Our flight to Hanoi arrived early – 6.30am – and on the 45-minute taxi ride in from the airport, we watched thousands of commuters flock citywards on motorcycles. By the time we’d crossed the Red River and plunged into the narrow streets of the old town, the city was wide awake – but we were exhausted from the overnight flight so we continued on to our hotel in the French Quarter and slept until lunchtime.

Now we were ready to begin our culinary adventures. At New Day, in a fit of enthusiasm, we ordered half the menu and, before long, our table was groaning with food: fresh salads, seafood soup, noodles with beef, soft-shell crab and the inevitable bowls of rice. That first taste of green papaya salad (goi du du), with crushed peanuts, coriander and tangy-sweet nuoc cham sauce, confirmed to me that this was indeed something new, far beyond what we’d tried back home.

We had arrived in Vietnam.

Of course, this was only an appetiser. As befits a long, narrow country with a diverse ethnic make-up, a storied colonial history and 3,000 kilometres of coastline, Vietnam has a varied cuisine. In the tropical south, where fruit and rice grow in abundance, dishes tend to be lighter and sweeter, with a liberal dusting of palm sugar. The food in the north is richer and heartier, and the influence of neighbouring China can be detected in the stir-fries and noodle-based soups.

Every part of the country has its own specialities; even villages within walking distance of each other can exhibit very different cooking traditions. Here in Hanoi, the largest city in the north and Vietnam’s capital, the dish everyone insists you try is pho (pronounced fuh), a clear meat broth containing rice noodles, herbs, beansprouts and slivers of beef or chicken. Every Hanoian has an opinion on where the city’s best pho is to be found and they are usually happy to share it. By the end of our stay, I, too, wanted to have an opinion about pho.

We got a broader view of Vietnamese cuisine at The Metropole, the magnificent hotel where we were spending the first two nights of our trip. Built in 1901 by the French, it exudes colonial elegance and a rich sense of history. Famous guests over the decades include Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who stayed here in December 1972, as American bombs rained down on Hanoi. In recent years, the French group Sofitel has restored The Metropole and expanded it; now it is one of the grandest places to stay in the country.

After a sundowner by the pool, we crossed the courtyard to the hotel’s Spices Garden restaurant, where a Vietnamese feast awaited us. The meal began with a selection of fresh and fried spring rolls (goi cuon), filled with beef, crab and vegetables. Then we had our first pho. The orthodox view is that real pho can only be found in local restaurants dedicated to the dish, but grand hotels do it well, too, and this was a fine example – rich, fragrant and very satisfying. It was followed by a curry of lobster from Nha Trang, a coastal city in the south, accompanied by a medley of vegetables from Đà Lat in the fertile Central Highlands.

The end of the meal was dominated by the lotus plant, whose flower is the symbol of Vietnam. In cooking, it is employed in a variety of ways: the flower is used in tea, the leaf for wrapping food, and the lotus stem is delicious as a base in salads. The seeds are often used in desserts. Here, we had lotus seeds in coconut jelly, followed by a sweet soup of sugar-cane syrup with lotus seeds, which was refreshing and delicious.

During our meal we asked our host, who grew up in Hanoi, for her pho opinion. She favoured the hotel’s version, but her father, she said, is a lifelong devotee of a small place in the Old Quarter known by its address: 49 Bat Dan. I made a note of her recommendation. However, we’d have to wait awhile before we could try it out.

The next day, we left Hanoi and headed south, with the intention of returning for a few nights towards the end of our holiday. It’s easy and inexpensive to get about by plane in Vietnam – there are airports dotted throughout the country and domestic flights have improved in recent years – but we decided to take the slower option and travel by train.

We were heading for Hoi An, a small coastal city in central Vietnam, known for having some of the best food in Asia. Once a significant trading port on the South China Sea, the city has, in the past two decades, become a popular tourist destination, attractive for its easy-going atmosphere and splendid traditional architecture as well as its food.

After 16 hours on the sleeper train and a further 45 minutes by taxi from Đà Nang, we arrived in Hoi An, tired but happy. The rains of Hanoi had dissipated, as had the hectic traffic, and we walked through sun-baked streets savouring the midday quiet.

The old town centre, next to the slow-moving Thu Bon river, is something to behold. The streets are dotted with old Chinese assembly halls and beautifully preserved merchant houses. To the west, there is a picturesque Japanese covered bridge dating back to the 16th century, which is now the emblem of Hoi An. There are silk weavers and numerous tailoring shops, which whip together garments for almost everyone who passes through the city. There is also a wealth of places to eat, and we wasted no time infinding a venue for lunch.

Our first couple of meals in Hoi An did not quite meet our sky-high expectations. For lunch, we decided to try a local food area on An Hoi island. The set-up, a covered market housing a long line of food stalls, was charming but our meal – spring rolls, prawns in banana leaf – was nothing special.

That evening, when red lanterns lit up every street and the centre came alive with people, we sampled a couple of dishes at the Banana Leaf, a cafe on the touristy riverfront. Again, they didn’t quite hit the spot. To experience Hoi An food at its best, we had to dig a little deeper.

We didn’t have to go far, though. One street back from the river, we came upon Morning Glory and went inside to continue our evening meal. It was a revelation.

We were wowed by bánh xèo, a crispy pancake with shrimps which we were instructed to wrap in rice paper and fill with herbs. Even better was a sweet-and-sour fish soup, which my wife later proclaimed her favourite dish of the whole trip – although I was just as taken with the papaya and sesame beef salad.

Morning Glory is one of several restaurants in Hoi An owned by an entrepreneurial local chef called Trinh Diem Vy. For breakfast the next day, we had mango lassis and delicious cinnamon buns at her Cargo Club cafe, just across the road from Morning Glory, and for lunch we ate at Vy’s first restaurant, Mermaid, close to the vibrant food market. Here, we sampled a local speciality, bánh bao, known in English as “white rose” dumplings for their resemblance to the flower.

We loved these so much that, the following day, we decided to learn how to make them. At our hotel, the serene and luxurious Anantara Hoi An Resort (www.hoi-an.anantara.com), we arranged to do a cookery class at noon so that, once we’d learned how to make bánh bao and other dishes, we could feast on our efforts for lunch.

In the airy dining room overlooking the river, a friendly young chef called Dieu set up a cooking station and guided us through the process. We made bánh bao with little balls of minced shrimp, folded inside thin sheets of rice paper. It took us several attempts, but in the end we were producing dumplings that looked, passably, like white roses. We ate them with little bits of toasted garlic scattered over the top and a plum chilli sauce on the side. Delicious.

Hoi An occupied us for four enjoyable days. You could spend weeks in this enchanting little city without exhausting all it has to offer, but it was time to move on. We didn’t return to Hanoi straight away. Instead, we went back up the coast in little hops, pausing for a couple of nights at Hue, with its magnificent, half-ruined Imperial City, then heading inland to Phong Nha, where we spent a few days exploring some awe-inspiring caves and eating lunches al fresco on carpets of banana leaves. But time was ticking on, and I was impatient to continue my pho quest, so we boarded another overnight train and headed back to the capital.

There is, of course, much more to Hanoi than pho. There is bánh cuon, a steamed rice cake filled with chicken and minced mushrooms, which Miss An, a third-generation bánh cuon maker, has perfected at her hole-in-the-wall cafe at 72 Hang Bo, in the Old Quarter. There is cha ca – white fish marinated in galangal and turmeric and served with fresh dill, which you can try at the specialist restaurant Cha Ca La Vong, just around the corner. You can sample steamed dog and even snake – there’s a village called Le Mat on the outskirts of the city where you can eat still-beating cobra hearts, in case you’re interested.

But it was pho that I was after, so we followed up the tip from our previous stay in Hanoi and made for 49 Bat Dan.

To say this little Old Quarter restaurant is modest would be an understatement. It’s a single room with the cooking area up front, open to the street, and a few tables behind. Great flanks of beef hang on display at the counter and a huge pot of broth bubbles away in the corner.

They serve three varieties of pho and nothing else, the most expensive a mere 50,000 Vietnamese dong (Dh8). I carried two steaming bowls back to the table and we ate them with big dollops of chilli sauce.

Oh my, what pho!

I’m not going to go into detail here about the subtleties of the broth or the depth of flavour in the meat. Suffice to say, it was the best noodle soup I’ve ever eaten.

We had come to Vietnam to get a better understanding of its cuisine, which is a roundabout way of saying we wanted to stuff ourselves silly with great Vietnamese food. Thanks to restaurants like 49 Bat Dan, we were going home full and happy.

The specs: 2018 Mercedes-Benz E 300 Cabriolet

Price, base / as tested: Dh275,250 / Dh328,465

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder

Power: 245hp @ 5,500rpm

Torque: 370Nm @ 1,300rpm

Transmission: Nine-speed automatic

Fuel consumption, combined: 7.0L / 100km

if you go

The flights

Flydubai flies to Podgorica or nearby Tivat via Sarajevo from Dh2,155 return including taxes. Turkish Airlines flies from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Podgorica via Istanbul; alternatively, fly with Flydubai from Dubai to Belgrade and take a short flight with Montenegro Air to Podgorica. Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Podgorica via Belgrade. Flights cost from about Dh3,000 return including taxes. There are buses from Podgorica to Plav. 

The tour

While you can apply for a permit for the route yourself, it’s best to travel with an agency that will arrange it for you. These include Zbulo in Albania (www.zbulo.org) or Zalaz in Montenegro (www.zalaz.me).

 

COMPANY PROFILE

Company: Eco Way
Started: December 2023
Founder: Ivan Kroshnyi
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: Electric vehicles
Investors: Bootstrapped with undisclosed funding. Looking to raise funds from outside

Engine: 3.5-litre V6

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Power: 290hp

Torque: 340Nm

Price: Dh155,800

On sale: now

The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

4. Shahada

5. Zakat 

DMZ facts
  • The DMZ was created as a buffer after the 1950-53 Korean War.
  • It runs 248 kilometers across the Korean Peninsula and is 4km wide.
  • The zone is jointly overseen by the US-led United Nations Command and North Korea.
  • It is littered with an estimated 2 million mines, tank traps, razor wire fences and guard posts.
  • Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un met at a building in Panmunjom, where an armistice was signed to stop the Korean War.
  • Panmunjom is 52km north of the Korean capital Seoul and 147km south of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
  • Former US president Bill Clinton visited Panmunjom in 1993, while Ronald Reagan visited the DMZ in 1983, George W. Bush in 2002 and Barack Obama visited a nearby military camp in 2012. 
  • Mr Trump planned to visit in November 2017, but heavy fog that prevented his helicopter from landing.
Company profile

Name: Yabi by Souqalmal 

Started: May 2022, launched June 2023

Founder: Ambareen Musa

Based: Dubai 

Sector: FinTech 

Initial investment: undisclosed but soon to be announced 

Number of staff: 12 

Investment stage: seed  

Investors: Shuaa Capital

The specs

Engine: 4-cylinder 2-litre
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Power: 252 brake horsepower
Torque: 352Nm
Price: from Dh146,700
On sale: now

How to donate

Text the following numbers:

2289 - Dh10

6025 - Dh 20

2252 - Dh 50

2208 - Dh 100

6020 - Dh 200

*numbers work for both Etisalat and du

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
McLaren GT specs

Engine: 4-litre twin-turbo V8

Transmission: seven-speed

Power: 620bhp

Torque: 630Nm

Price: Dh875,000

On sale: now

THE BIO

Born: Mukalla, Yemen, 1979

Education: UAE University, Al Ain

Family: Married with two daughters: Asayel, 7, and Sara, 6

Favourite piece of music: Horse Dance by Naseer Shamma

Favourite book: Science and geology

Favourite place to travel to: Washington DC

Best advice you’ve ever been given: If you have a dream, you have to believe it, then you will see it.

Dengue fever symptoms
  • High fever
  • Intense pain behind your eyes
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash

If symptoms occur, they usually last for two-seven days

Pakistan World Cup squad

Sarfraz Ahmed (c), Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Abid Ali, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez(subject to fitness), Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Junaid Khan, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Hasnain      

Two additions for England ODIs: Mohammad Amir and Asif Ali

What went into the film

25 visual effects (VFX) studios

2,150 VFX shots in a film with 2,500 shots

1,000 VFX artists

3,000 technicians

10 Concept artists, 25 3D designers

New sound technology, named 4D SRL

 

The Lowdown

Kesari

Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Produced by: Dharma Productions, Azure Entertainment
Directed by: Anubhav Singh
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra

 

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded

SNAPSHOT

While Huawei did launch the first smartphone with a 50MP image sensor in its P40 series in 2020, Oppo in 2014 introduced the Find 7, which was capable of taking 50MP images: this was done using a combination of a 13MP sensor and software that resulted in shots seemingly taken from a 50MP camera.

Empty Words

By Mario Levrero  

(Coffee House Press)
 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge

Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Dotemu
Consoles: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4&5, PC and Xbox One
Rating: 4/5

Brief scores

Barcelona 2

Pique 36', Alena 87'

Villarreal 0

The specs

Engine: 4.0-litre, flat six-cylinder
Transmission: seven-speed PDK
Power: 510hp
Torque: 470Nm
Price: from Dh634,200
On sale: now

Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.

Company profile

Company name: Ogram
Started: 2017
Founders: Karim Kouatly and Shafiq Khartabil
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: On-demand staffing
Number of employees: 50
Funding: More than $4 million
Funding round: Series A
Investors: Global Ventures, Aditum and Oraseya Capital

A QUIET PLACE

Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Joseph Quinn, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rating: 4/5

Results

ATP Dubai Championships on Monday (x indicates seed):

First round
Roger Federer (SUI x2) bt Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 6-4, 3-6, 6-1
Fernando Verdasco (ESP) bt Thomas Fabbiano (ITA) 3-6, 6-3, 6-2
Marton Fucsovics (HUN) bt Damir Dzumhur (BIH) 6-1, 7-6 (7/5)
Nikoloz Basilashvili (GEO) bt Karen Khachanov (RUS x4) 6-4, 6-1
Jan-Lennard Struff (GER) bt Milos Raonic (CAN x7) 6-4, 5-7, 6-4

COMPANY PROFILE

Founder: Hani Abu Ghazaleh
Based: Abu Dhabi, with an office in Montreal
Founded: 2018
Sector: Virtual Reality
Investment raised: $1.2 million, and nearing close of $5 million new funding round
Number of employees: 12


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