Tag Archives: Hanoi

Four Kitchens, One in Hanoi

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Sunset Park to meet Village Voice restaurant critic Lauren Shockey at the far-flung Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da. I’d been introduced to Lauren through a college friend who thought we might get along, as Lauren had spent some time in Vietnam. By spent some time in Vietnam, I thought my friend meant that Lauren had passed through on the backpacking circuit.

But that was not what she meant. Lauren, in fact, had traveled to Hanoi for a residency at La Verticale, the home base of Didier Corlou, a chef who separates his own salt from nuoc mam and plays chemistry with essential oils extracted from local herbs.

I can now only marvel at how pedantic I must have sounded to a woman who’d punched the clock at one of Hanoi’s best kitchens.

Fortunately, Miss Shockey is a kind gourmand who drew no attention to my presumptuousness. She’s also a seriously talented food writer with a new book due out soon: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. As the title suggests, the book documents Lauren’s experience as an apprentice at four kitchens around the world. The anecdotes Lauren related over dinner were enough to win my pre-order, but it’s her time in Hanoi that’s really got me curious.

During my stint as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC, I spent a few hours in November 2008 with Didier Corlou, back when he was in residence at On the 6 in downtown Saigon. The man is a hurricane. We had barely finished shaking hands when he hauled me into his kitchen and hoisted uncorked jars of his herbal concoctions to my schnoz while rhapsodizing in a thick French accent about his passions and process. I could barely understand him, but I was rapt. I can only imagine what an extended stay in his world was like, and I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s chronicles of life with Corlou.

(And for the record, the bun bo Hue and che ba mau at Thanh Da are well worth the long ride on the N train.)

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Filed under Books, Food & Drink, Hanoi, New York City

NYT Travel: Overselling Vietnam Beer?

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Yesterday my sister sent me a link to a New York Times Travel section article called “In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail” in which the author embarks on what he describes as “a beer odyssey” through the country. When I read these two words—“beer” and “odyssey”—I was immediately intrigued.

To most of the beer enthusiasts I know, Vietnam is not known for the quality of its brew. Had I missed something during my two years in Vietnam? I wondered.

Alas, I had not. The article, despite being well-written and engaging, left me with a familiar impression: travel writers are still figuring out how to sell Vietnam.

There’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the beer culture in Vietnam. When I moved here in March 2008, I too was taken with the local bia hoi joints, the plastic stools and tables, the convivial atmosphere and 33 cent beer. But to suggest that Vietnam boasts a beer trail is a stretch in my opinion.

Let me explain why.

At one point, the writer says: “For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, the variety of local and regional beers can be surprising. It seems each city has a beer named after it (Bia Can Tho, Bia Thai Binh, Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue, and so on), and the best of the bunch depends on whom you ask and where you’re asking. But in recent decades, Vietnamese beer culture has morphed, adopting traditional European styles as well as embracing a uniquely ephemeral home-grown brew called bia hoi.”

To me, the phrasing here is misleading. I don’t know if “variety” is the right word. Yes, many cities have their own beer, but the contents are pretty standard: pedestrian lagers brewed with too much rice and too few hops to have much (if any) defining character. These regional beers do well in their hometowns for a simple reason: local pride. (This is according to my interviews with local market research firm TNS Vietnam.)

I also think the bit about Vietnamese beer culture morphing needs qualification. For those who have the means, beer choice in rapidly developing Vietnam is very much a social statement. Various local bar owners, the heads of international brand operations and Vietnamese friends have all told me the same thing: the beer middle and upper class locals drink is influenced by their perception of its prestige, with beers like Heineken ranking higher than Bia Saigon or Bia Hanoi, which are viewed as a workingman’s brew.

Since the emphasis is on the label rather than the quality of the contents, there’s little demand for a more diverse range of beer (except among expats, who represent a drop in the bucket). Local tastes tend toward simple lagers, so few bars serve anything but Tiger, Foster’s, Budweiser, Heineken, Miller, San Miguel, Corona and the local brews. This carries over into the microbreweries that the writer covers, as well; a brewer at one of these establishments told me he’d like to brew up something with a bit more character, but his boss won’t let him for fear that it won’t sell.

The “aspirational drinker” trend is what really drives the change in beer culture in Vietnam. It utterly dwarfs the tiny niche of microbreweries in Saigon. As an editor, I would have urged the writer to focus on either the novelty of Saigon’s microbreweries or the bia hoi culture covered at the end of the article.

Overall, I think it’s a mistake is to paint a portrait of an evolving beer culture that begs to be explored. When you evoke phrases like “beer trail” and “beer odyssey” you then have to deliver on the reader’s expectations. The fact is Vietnam’s beer portfolio remains very limited, and the trends that are really driving production are actually nudging beer in Vietnam towards mediocrity.

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Filed under Culture, Media, Nightlife, Vietnam

Jetstar’s Friday Fare Frenzy

With only one true budget air carrier operating in Vietnam — Jetstar Pacific — there’s not often much to report on. But in June Jetstar initiated its Friday Fare Frenzy promotion, offering customers discounted fares on select flights booked between 2 and 5pm every Friday. 

So three weeks into the promotion, what’s the verdict?

A search on Friday, July 10 turned up cheap flights early morning and late night on the HCMC – Danang and Hanoi – Danang routes — 180,000 VND ($10 USD) for one-way Jetsaver Light fares and 230,000 VND ($13) for Jetsaver fares. Danang’s not the most exciting destination, but it does make for a cheap means of skipping over to Hoi An and, for motorbike travelers, puts you just a few miles from the stunning Hai Van Pass. The problem? The flights depart more than 3 months down the line — a booking made on July 10 was good for travel between October 26 and November 12.

The following weekend, however, Jetstar offered a more user-friendly schedule: one-way Jetsaver Light fares for 350,000 VND ($20) between HCMC and Hanoi (October 5 to November 12), and the same price for a HCMC-Vinh route (September 22 to November 12). It’s a bit of a lottery, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Filed under Jetstar, Vietnam

Jetstar: Hue Routes Axed, Highlands and Dalat Delayed

Jetstar Pacific recently confirmed my suspicions: the delay on the Hanoi – Hue route missed its simultaneous launch with the Nha Trang and Danang routes due to rising global fuel costs. Now, the Ho Chi Minh City – Hue service has been axed, as well. Add to the list of bad news that the HCMC – Buon Ma Thout (Central Highlands) and HCMC – Dalat routes will miss their scheduled first flights originally slated for August.

In related news, Airbus announced that increased production on its A380 line will be delayed, which will likely complicate Jetstar’s plans to get wheels up on thirty A380s in Vietnam by the projected 2014 deadline.

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Filed under Flights, Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam

Three New Vietnam Routes on Jetstar Pacific

Jetstar Pacific is scheduled to expand its domestic route map today to include three new direct routes connecting Hanoi to Danang, Hue and Nha Trang. However, as of this morning, jetstar.com‘s booking engine yields no results for the Hanoi-Hue route. Meanwhile, wheels are up on the Danang and Nha Trang flights. A JetSaver Light (carry-on only) ticket starts at $35, while a full-priced boarding pass costs about $47. JetSaver Light tickets to Cam Ranh Airport, 28 miles (45 km) from Nha Trang, average $52 for weekday travel and $72 on the weekends. Regular fares hover at $82.

Jetstar Pacific is poised to corner the market on cheap flights in Vietnam. The partnership between Quantas Group’s Jetstar and Pacific Airlines, which launched Jetstar Pacific on May 23, has introduced the nation’s first budget airline.

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Filed under Flights, Transportation, Vietnam

Hanoi Takes on Traffic Congestion

Viet Nam News recently reported on Hanoi’s experimentation with traffic congestion problems. With more cars than ever on the road, Vietnam’s streets, accustomed to more fluid motorbike traffic, are in a state of shock. Hanoi’s answer? Designate lanes for car and motorbike use.

Cars that trespass across lanes will pay a VND 400,000 ($25) fine, while deviant motorbike drivers will suffer a less severe VND 80 – 100,000 fine ($5-6). Jay walkers will also be penalized to the tune of VND 20 – 40,000 ($1.20-2.50).

This sounds easy enough, but the motorbike culture in Vietnam is a rootless, unwritten negotiation between motorists based on split decisions and tacit understandings. Traffic is a fluid, amorphous phenomenon. The problem is that the motorbike culture, inculcated because few Vietnamese could afford a car throughout decades of privation, didn’t anticipate the economic booms in Hanoi and Saigon. The culture simply can’t accommodate these vehicular status symbols.

But proof of the culture’s entrenchment is the fact that Hanoi has only implemented the measures on a single 1.635 km-long road. The plan is to roll out the policy on additional streets later in the year. In Saigon, the roads in District 7 are designated for car and motorbike usage, but the district’s rational planning is the result of ambitious land reclamation and redevelopment. Indeed District 7’s roads look absolutely Martian relative to the cramped motorways across the rest of the city.

Another sign that traffic departments have their work cut out for them: a few years ago, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency came to Hanoi to implement the same plan, but the joint international venture failed.

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Filed under Ho Chi Minh City, Transportation, Vietnam