Hot woks and pho

Terry Durack and Jill Dupleix take a culinary journey to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Like so many people in Australia, we grew up eating hangover lunches of Vietnamese pho noodle soups and crisp little spring rolls, awed by the freshness of the slippery white noodles, the purity of the broth and the overall revivifying effect of the herbs, fish sauce and lime juice. But we didn't fully understand where this wonderful bowlful of goodness came from, nor what the real differences were between north and south Vietnam. (With such a long, skinny noodle of a country, East and West just doesn't seem to count.)

All we knew was that differing climates, histories, civil wars, occupations and migrations shaped Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south with two distinct cultures and personalities. For the food lover, it's a tough choice as to which is more enticing. For two food lovers travelling together, it's a bit of a marital dilemma as to where to spend more meal times.

Hanoi is immediately seductive, with its lakeside walks, colonial charm, French-style cafes and wide, tree-lined avenues. Yet Ho Chi Minh City is a buzzing, modern metropolis full of great markets and incredible produce. What to do?

We save the marriage by letting our old friend, Melbourne-based chef, cookery teacher and Asian food authority Tony Tan, make the decisions. He says to start in the north, home of the original pho noodle soup. ''The flavours are more direct and straightforward,'' he says. ''Servings are also smaller and - the northerners claim - more elegant, perhaps due to the several centuries of Chinese influence.''

It's off to Hanoi for more pho than two people have a right to eat; putting away two or more bowls each morning, willing the flavours to stay in our taste memory banks by sheer repetition.

Tan is right: the beef and roasted-onion broth is absolutely pure, the noodles sheer silk, the bowls small and the garnishes modest. We also go ballistic over cha ca (fried fish with dill), bun cha (grilled pork patties with a tangy dipping broth and noodles), banh cuon (steamed soft rice-flour rolls) and nem (rice-paper spring rolls).

After that, eating pho in Ho Chi Minh City is like coming home; the bowls are huge and lush with herbs and bean sprouts, with a lilting sweetness in the broth, whether it be pho bo or pho ga (another marital divide: he's for the beef; she's for the chicken). ''Southern food is sweeter and spicier than up north,'' Tan says. ''The food is more artfully presented and heavily influenced by the neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia.''

Northerners look down on this overly embellished southern version but we're immediately transported back to Richmond in Melbourne or Cabramatta in Sydney, tucking into another hangover cure.

We eat all day, every day, concentrating on bun moc (noodle soup with liver paˆte´); banh xeo (Hue-style rice-flour crepes stuffed with bean sprouts, prawns and pork) and banh mi (crusty baguettes filled with liver pate, sausage, chilli, coriander and pickled vegetables). Oh, my sweet lord, the bahn mi. Our office lunch back home will never be the same again.

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So, this became a tour of two entirely different cities: the sophisticated, cultured Hanoi (emphasised by the Graham Greene-ish charms of its historic Metropole Hotel) and the brash, vibrant, adrenalin hit of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, of course, the only marital debate is about how soon we can go back, to both.

Where to eat in Ho Chi Minh City

Pho Hung

Getting a seat at this elbow-to-elbow pho restaurant is almost as difficult as crossing the road through the bumper-to-bumper motorcycle traffic. From the moment the doors open at 6am to the minute they close at 3am, Pho Hung is one big slurp city as regulars tuck into huge, fragrant, steaming bowls of pho bo and pho ga, piling them high with Asian basil and sawtooth coriander gathered from giant platters of herbs. You can also ask for beef blood as an extra, which congeals in the broth to give a rich, velvety texture. Well, he can.

She may not.

241-243 Nguyen Trai, District 1; +84 8 3838 5089.

Tib

George W. Bush and John Howard famously ate here in 2006 but we didn't let that put us off. Housed in a charming Sino-French villa, accessed by hopping precariously across ornamental fish ponds (inevitably followed by one of us falling in, even before dinner), Tib is utterly rigorous in its presentation of traditional southern and central Vietnamese dishes. The place is loud and filled with smoke but the soft rice-flour rolls are warm and fine, made to order and topped with ground shrimp and crunchy pork skin; bitter mustard leaves are rolled around shrimp, pork and noodles and rice comes studded with shrimp and pork in lotus leaves. This is our finest meal in Vietnam.

187 Hai Ba Trung, District 3; +84 8 3829 7242.

Thanh Mai

We saw this huge corner spot from a taxi and raced back early the next morning before heading for the airport to join the crowd of locals crouched on tiny plastic stools on the footpath and wolf down the delicious breakfast noodle soup known as bun moc. Originally from the north but served here with typical southern generosity, the bowls of steaming broth are strewn with fresh round rice noodles, various cuts of pork, blood cakes, cha lua (Vietnamese ''salami''), chilli, bean sprouts and a pungent purple chilli paste. Stunning.

14 Truong Dinh, District 1; +84 8 3823 2885.

Nha Hang Ngon

In 2001, Vietnamese entrepreneur Hoia Tan Duong convinced 20 of the city's best street cooks to relocate to a leafy courtyard surrounding a gorgeous colonial-style villa. Ten years later, the 400-seater is packed out at lunch and dinner as large groups, workers and tourists cover the tables with the local ''333'' beer and bun bo (cold noodles with beef), nem nuong (grilled pork balls) and fresh prawn spring rolls. It's the perfect place to dip a gastronomic toe in the water on your first day in town (as is sister restaurant, Quan an Ngon, in Hanoi), where the Ha Noi beer comes loaded with crushed ice. Weird but wonderful.

160 Pasteur Street, District 1; +84 8 3827 7131. Quan an Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hanoi; +84 4 3942 8162.

Wrap & Roll

To wrap and roll just so happens to be the best way to eat anything in Vietnam. By the time you come home, you want to wrap and roll your breakfast eggs and bacon in leafy greens and take a big bite (and come to think if it, why not?). This place might look like a lurid green burger chain but it's a great spot for excellent chao tom (grilled prawn-wrapped sugar cane), pho cuon (rice rolls with beef), cha gio nam (southern-style pork and shrimp spring rolls) and a life-changing, table-covering, crisp, golden banh xeo rice crepe - all ''as cheap as duckweed'', as the local saying goes - and all ready to wrap and roll.

62 Hai Ba Trung, District 1; +84 4 3822 2166.

Where to eat in Hanoi

Cha Ca La Vong

This fifth-generation family-run restaurant is so famous, the street was renamed for its signature dish, Hanoi-style cha ca, or fried fish with dill. First you climb the dangerously rickety wooden stairs to your little wooden table. A bashed-up frypan arrives, perched on a portable burner.

You melt knobs of lard, then throw in the turmeric-yellow fish (ca loc, or snake head fish) and generous handfuls of fresh dill, then pile it all into your bowl with cold vermicelli noodles, peanuts, spring onions and a strong fermented fish sauce called mam ruoc and eat.

14 Cha Ca, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi; +84 4 38 253 929.

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim

All the great street-food cafes serve just one dish. Here, it's bun cha, which has what it takes to shake pho off its perch as Vietnam's most-loved dish. Women crouch on the street to grill small, fragrant minced-pork patties over charcoal, then send them to your table with bowls of hot broth, round rice noodles (bun), loads of herbs, chopped chilli and garlic, and a platter of nem cua be (crisp spring rolls stuffed with crab meat). You dip the pork and the spring rolls in the broth in a multi-textured frenzy of freshness, tang, smoke and scorch - and all for 40,000 Vietnamese dong, or $2. Napkins are priced at an extra 300 dong, that's less than 1¢ each.

67 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 38 287 060.

Pho Bo Hang Dong

This hole-in-the-wall noodle joint looks like every other hole-in-the-wall noodle joint in the old quarter, with its peeling paint and scary electrical wiring, but Pho Bo Hang Dong's pho consistently rates in the city's top three. Mr Viet inherited the place from his father, who established the business some 60 years ago. His pho bo, here known as pho chieu, is remarkable not just for the quality of the beef and the silky freshness of the noodles but for the pure clarity of the broth. Even better is pho bo dac biet, with bull's penis, beef tendon and beef tripe.

48 Hang Dong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi; +84 4 38 282 893.

Spices Garden

Our holiday strategy for Vietnam is to spend a fortune on accommodation by night and live on the best and cheapest street food in the world by day. The Metropole Hotel doesn't disappoint, with its vintage Citroens, silk-costumed staff and fragrant fresh flowers, but we blow our strategy by staying in for lunch one day at its flagship Spices Garden restaurant. Head chef Nguyen Thi Kim Hai's brilliant array of traditional Hanoi street food - from pho bo to ga nuong la chanh (chicken grilled over charcoal) - is refined without being overly sanitised. The hotel also runs a morning tour of the nearby 1912 Market and a cookery class with Madame Nguyen, so you can bring her recipes home with you for some do-it-yourself.

Spices Garden, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, 15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi; +84 4 38 266 919; sofitel.com.

Madame Hien

The long-time executive chef of the Metropole, Didier Corlou, set up this charming Vietnamese restaurant as a tribute to his wife's grandmother, a revered Hanoi cook in her own right. The glorious French colonial villa is like a film set from the movie Indochine and the enormous menu lists local faves such as cha ca fried fish, nem spring rolls and banh cuon rice pancakes, as well as more creative Corlou creations such as duck foie gras on lemongrass sticks. And it's a damn sight more comfortable than squatting on plastic stools on the street - not to mention being able to order a decent red wine.

15 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 39 381 588; verticale-hanoi.com.

Cafe culture, Vietnamese style

WHEN French colonists introduced cafe au lait (along with chicken liver pate, croissants and baguettes) to Vietnam in the 19th century, south-east Asia's first coffee culture was born. Coffee plantations soon sprang up in the central highlands and Vietnam is now the second-largest coffee producer in the world.

It's not exactly your average caffe latte, however. Vietnamese coffee is an acquired taste, rather like drinking highly caffeinated, strangely delicious mud.

The famous iced coffee (ca phe sua da) is a finely ground, drip-filtered dark brew of robusta beans poured over ice and stirred with sweetened evaporated milk until frothy. It's a lifesaver on a hot, humid day, when the drone of the ever-present motorbikes is like that of angry swarming bees and all the moisture present in your body seems to be slowly trickling down your spine.

The most fashionable cafes serve ''weasel coffee'', so called because the beans pass through the digestive tract of a weasel, renowned for eating only the ripest berries from the coffee plant. Others offer gimmicks such as virtual golf screens or pet cats available for adoption (for the duration of a cup, or for life).

To immerse yourself in Vietnamese cafe culture - or just to recharge dangerously low caffeine levels - try Hang Hanh (Coffee Street) in Hanoi's old quarter; Kinh Do Hanoi Cafe 252 in Hang Bong Street; or the Highlands Coffee Cafe behind the Hanoi Opera House. In HCMC, try the Trung Nguyen Coffee houses or Ciao Cafe at 74 D Nguyen Hue.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines is the only airline flying non-stop to Ho Chi Minh City from Melbourne and Sydney (about 9hr). Fares cost from $1170 low-season return, including tax. Other Asian airlines fly via their hubs, for about the same fare you could fly into Ho Chi Minh City and out of Hanoi. Singapore Airlines flies to Hanoi for about $1030 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, to Singapore (about 8hr), then Hanoi (3hr 30min). Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Touring there

Melbourne-based Tony Tan runs occasional tours of Vietnam and China. Tan's next tour is from August 5-15 and costs from $6299 a person, land only for 11 days, 10 nights, including cookery classes, luxury accommodation and market tours. See tonytan.com.au or contact Jetset Travel South Melbourne, 9696 7979, jetset.com.au /southmelbourne.

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