One of the joys of travel is savoring the cuisine of another country, whether it’s because you already love it or because you want to try something new. In Southeast Asia, I came away with a new appreciation of Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes on two outstanding food tours. With the help of knowledgeable guides, I was taken where few tourists tread: street food stands, tiny restaurants in narrow alleys and night markets bustling with families out to enjoy local favorites.
We went on two food tours while in Hanoi, but it was the second one that left a lasting impression.
We had been in the capital city for four days when we realized, on the day we were planning to leave, that the food tour we had already taken wasn’t the one that we had intended (they were similarly named). In a last-ditch effort, we contacted Hanoi Street Food Tours, and within the hour, Van Cong Tu, the author of the blog Vietnamese God and one of the two guides behind the food tour, was in the lobby of our hotel, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.
We immediately set off, but before eating our way across the city, Tu helpfully showed us how to cross a Hanoi street without getting hit by the throngs of motorbikes — something I wish we’d learned days earlier.
Tu and his business partner, Mark Lowerson, the writer behind the blog Stickyrice, have been taking visitors through the streets and markets of Hanoi since 2009. With no marketing but two blogs between them, they have become quite the success, earning numerous press mentions and fans around the world.
Over the course of three hours, we would follow Tu off the beaten path to sample fermented wild rice with yogurt, shrimp cakes, char siu pork noodles, crab spring rolls, fried-fish noodle soup at Bún Cá Văn and Vietnamese egg coffee at Café Giảng. We would learn how to take better food photos, ask Tu about growing up in Nha Trang and generally wish that his tour had been our introduction to Hanoi rather than the final installment of our trip.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Two people who took Mark and Tu’s tour in 2013 were so inspired that they decided to follow in their footsteps and start their own in Cambodia. Begun by Scottish chef Steven Halcrow and food writer Lina Goldberg, Siem Reap Food Tours offers morning and evening itineraries that are completely different from each other. The morning tours visit food markets and villages, whereas the evening tours focus on eating around town at family-run restaurants and popular dining spots for locals. We opted for the evening tour.
Our guide and driver picked us up in a tuk-tuk at our hotel, Phum Baitang. During the almost four-hour tour, we tried green curry sea bass roasted over hot coals; barbecued beef with prahok, fermented fish sauce; and durian, a coveted — and smelly — fruit.
Our most colorful stop was the fair and food market on Road 60, commonly called Picnic Lane, where families come to eat next to their favorite street food vendors on pallets beside the road. As there were few Westerners there, this night market felt more authentic than the ones we had passed along the way. We tried several items, but my favorite was the sausage-stuffed frog on a stick!
The standout of the night, however, was Muscovy duck soup, the sole dish on the menu at the restaurant of the same name. Seated at an outdoor table with the owner’s dog at our feet, we were given a bowl of broth containing pieces of duck, precooked taro, fried tofu and congealed duck blood to heat on a portable propane cooktop. We got two bowls of vegetables and greens from which we added baby corn, cabbage, oyster mushrooms, mustard greens, morning glory, Thai basil and plaew kangkep, which translates to “frog’s leg” and tastes like caraway seed. Condiments included tofu sauce, fermented soy bean sauce and chile-based duck fat. Like an intensely layered gumbo, this duck soup was hearty and rich and could have fed eight people.