Letters from Vietnam

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Dear reader, the last time you saw me in Da Nang I was busy getting massaged like a wagyu cattle and taking advantage of the Fusion Maia’s all inclusive spa treatment menu. But I promise that I didn’t spend every minute here on a massage table. Today I am seeing a different and varied side of Da Nang and Vietnam that I’d like to show you too.

The Marble Mountains or five element mountains are a cluster of limestone and marble hills and caves that are situated in Da Nang. Among these is a Buddhist sanctuary where pagodas were erected as a dedication to Buddhist followers and monks. A monk walks past us wearing golden robes. He turns and smiles at us and asks where we are from.

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…Climbing the mountain is tiring work and you can go half way up with the elevator for 15,000VND (about 70 cents) but there is still quite a way to climb. Exhausted and hot we adjourn to a coffee house in the centre of Da Nang for a Vietnamese coffee, something that it is very easy to become addicted to.

… Traditionally Vietnamese coffee is served as a syrupy thick drink a couple of centimetres in depth and served with a glass of iced, unsweetened tea with ice. You can order the coffee hot or cold and with or without milk – the milk of course being that wonderfully addictive item called sweetened condensed milk.

...After afternoon tea, I leave the rest of the group behind and I’m off on a little trip of my own this afternoon. Joel, the general manager at Fusion Maia has a degree in "make it happen” and when I asked if there was any possibility of doing some experiences that connected me with local people he quickly made it happen. Fusion Maia has a Fusion Friends programme that allows guests to connect further with Vietnamese culture and people (hence the fusion part). They offer two experiences to allow for this and the first is sitting down to a meal with a Vietnamese family, often one of the staff member’s families, and experiencing real family Vietnamese cuisine.

So today I am meeting my "Fusion Friend” staff member Nicky Nguyen and she and the executive chef at Fusion Maia Dung are taking me to his home nearby. However Chef Dung tells me that his wife has prepared the meal because as the executive chef he would most likely give it a resort Fusion Maia feel whereas the whole point is to eat what the ever day Vietnamese eats. Normally, if you do this experience you would spend the whole day with them and shop and cook with them but as we have such a short time here they’ve already prepared the food.

We drive to their house which is less than 10 minutes away. We walk past two young men making signs, a hairdresser and arrive at their house. His wife Suong is in the kitchen with Chef Dung’s mother in law and they are busy cooking. His wife normally runs a shop that sits on the side of their house and is open from 6am to 9pm, seven days a week. But now it is eating time and the smell is delicious as we walk through the very neat, nicely furnished house decorated in the Vietnamese style with lacquer tables and flowers.

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Chef Dung explains that on the table is an array of salads including a bowl of banana flower. To this tangle of banana flower he adds a sauce which is a blend of oil, black pepper, sugar, lemon juice, garlic and fish sauce and he offers it to me for a taste. The sauce sings with flavour and he tells me that the key to this sauce is to whisk it for 10 minutes to dissolve the sugar and combine all of the elements. He then spoons some of the dressing and a big handful of mint into the thinly sliced banana flower and combines it with gloved hand. To this he adds some river prawns that have been marinated in fish sauce, chilli and sugar and cooked through.

Our next course is the fresh spring rolls. Nicky explains that for lunch and dinner, there usually is a soup and rice course. Most Vietnamese people eat out for breakfast and it will eat either a Western or a Vietnamese one but for lunch and dinner they always need rice.

Chef Dung shows me how to make the rice paper rolls. They're big papers so he simply breaks each disc in half and then dips them into the water quickly and then allows them to rest on the side of the bowl for about 10 seconds. You can then fill them with the cucumber, spring onion, eryngo (sawtooth coriander), salad, beans sprouts and pork and then the pork tenderloin. The ‘nuoc mam’ sauce is simply fish sauce, water and chilli and he explains that you can make up a big batch of this and then just keep it in the fridge for up to five days. The pork tenderloin is marinated in five spice, lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and oil for half an hour before being cooked in a frypan.

Everyone takes a half and does their own although Chef Dung makes mine for me and they kindly keep giving me these delicious rolls filled with fresh salad. The rolls are so crunchy and flavoursome I don’t mind a jot! His mother in law watches us make them and then retreats once she sees that we can do it. She’s a vegetarian so she doesn’t eat with us.

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We finish off with slices of pomelo which Chef Dung tells us is very good for digestion. The pomelo is served as sheathed segments and he removes the white membrane by cutting them with scissors and then peeling it off. And so ends one of the best meals of the trip. I bid the very talented and lovely Chef Dung and his wife Suong goodbye as I’m off to visit a Vietnamese orphanage.

"Hello!” I say and there’s a giggle from a little girl and her friend and they hide behind each other.

"Hello!” they echo back shyly. A boy walks out from his room, looks at me surprised and when I greet him with hello, a broad smile crosses his face and a bright "hello!” and a wave comes back.

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