Life Of Two In Asia. Day 17. Saigon Experiences.

We made it to Saigon. The trip here was uneventful, that is why I decided not to write about it. I will, however, write about the two Airbnb experiences we booked here. It was the first time we tried anything like this, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

The first experience I booked was a tea tasting. I am a massive tea fan, this is a tea region so I thought if not here, where? The second experience was related to food. To be honest, I booked it out of guilt. As you know, Alin is the gastronomer in our family so I thought something for me (tea), something for him (food).

In this post, Alin will write about the food and I will write about the tea experience.

A seven-course tasting menu with Hoang.

I don’t know about you, but I think food is not about the ingredients, food is about people.

Oana booked an Airbnb experience with a young Vietnamese chef. When she told me it was going to be “fusion” cuisine I was slightly confused and had pretty low expectations. Fusion is just a fancy word for gastronomic puberty, when you are all confused, in my opinion. We were to find out later that our chef had actually been studying and improving his skills in Australia and Denmark, at highly renowned restaurants, but we had no way of knowing that at first.

The tasting experience was set in a cozy home and we were surprised to find out it was just the three of us: Oana, myself and Hoang.

We were invited to a quiet room upstairs. A while later, Hoang came with appetizers. I think my mind was stuck on Vietnam and the spicy food I ate here. At Hoang’s, again, I expected my taste buds to be assaulted. But, instead, I got served a home-made toasted brioche, hazelnut butter spread, jamon, and pickles. For a moment, I stopped chewing and realized that this chef meant business, he knew how to balance taste.

The next course was ratatouille. Again, I expected something with a zing. Again, Hoang surprised me with a rather mellow taste. Just like his home, his food was saying “Relax, man, you are home now. You are safe. Put your guard down.” It kind of went well with his slight Australian accent and his warm smile, almost like a child’s, one who knows a mud pie is not a mud pie, of course.

The third course was a generous bowl of brown rice porridge with pandan leaf oil and baby beetroot leaves. There was also a slight touch of fish sauce I should have bet Oana over because she couldn’t taste it. Hoang had upgraded this simple Vietnamese dish and told us a story about his childhood. The porridge wasn’t really about the ingredients, it was about remembering. Going through the food was like going through an album with memories.

We moved downstairs. In the small kitchen, Hoang prepared the best chicken we ever had. He glazed it with fish sauce and served it with baby bok choy and small cubes of carrots and celery.

After the first bite, I realized this was no ordinary chef, his skills were incredible. So I asked. It turns out, he was trained at Orana, in Australia, one of the best restaurants in the world. And then, he mentioned Noma. That was the moment I understood why and how. It all started to make sense. Besides his talent, he had the chance to learn from the best in the world.

I truly believe Hoang is going places. He has a gift and, what’s more, he has the discipline to cultivate it. I know for a fact that being at Noma is very challenging and hard.

The dessert? Chocolate truffle, artichoke tea, coffee sponge with coconut and orange foam. The last one was the perfect ending for our tasting menu. I won’t say more because I am almost drowning in my own saliva when I remember. The perfect symbiosis between sweet sour, soft and that rough cacao taste.

It was really hard to leave. An experience that was supposed to last one and a half hours took almost twice as much. Hoang’s passion was obvious in the food he cooked but, most of all, in the way he talked about food. His eyes and hands and smile looked like they were messengers of his talent. I reckon this is how a good chef looks, truly.

A tea tasting experience with Thu Ngoc.

Look, I am no connoisseur, but I massively consume tea. It started with Maria, my colleague at Airbus, offering me a cup. It ended with me ordering online one kilo of various different kinds of leaves and blends at a time.

Today I found out just about how ignorant I was because tea, much like wine, can be tasted, enjoyed, explored. Thanks to Thu Ngoc at Hatvala, I now know a little more about tea.

We tried four different types: white, green, oolong and black teas. Every time, there was some dancing going on in my mouth. For those who don’t know, all of the above come from the same plant — tea. It’s just the various parts of the plant which are harvested and their various types of preparation and oxidation that give tea (the liquid) its taste.

For example, for white tea, one harvests only the buds. For green, it’s the buds and one or two leaves. Also, the green tea is not oxidized at all, while the black tea is fully oxidized. What is special about the oolong tea is that it comes in tiny balls — the leaves are rolled during preparation to retain the flavor. And it is indeed some form of magic that happens while doing so because when you drink it, it fully unravels this subtle aroma in your mouth. It’s tender and gentle, pretty much like the love of a mother.

What is also very important is that in Vietnam, tea doesn’t have a strong tradition as in China. You just don’t hear about it, but Vietnamese people are ferocious tea drinkers, just like their neighbors. Curiously enough, however, they have these ancient tea plants that have been around for hundreds of years. The average tea plant lasts about 100 years, after that it’s not good anymore.

I left this experience wanting to go back to Hanoi and explore the tea areas from North Vietnam. Growing and preparing tea is an art far less complicated and more gracious in its simplicity than I would have thought. And we were lucky enough to be walked through it by a truly passionate person like Thu Ngoc.

Don’t forget to check our Instagram. We have more pictures there.

Good night, friends, wherever you are!

For your info, this is the tea tasting experience and this is the seven-course menu experience.

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