The road to the real Vietnam runs through its kitchens and markets. On a recent gastronomic quest to savor as much of the country’s rich and varied cuisine as possible, I found modes of transport every bit as diverse as the nation’s menus. These included a train ride on the historic Reunification Express from Saigon to Phan Thiet, and a side-car journey on a vintage red motorcycle, cruising mountain roads past pungent tea and coffee plantations, navigating narrow byways where the only impediments to our passage were squawking chickens and the lone little goat shepherd tending his flock. Passing the occasional village school children dressed in blue and white uniforms, their waves and smiles were as welcome as the warm tropical air.
From its beginnings in Saigon, my month-long sojourn through Vietnam continues its way North, through the hills of Dalat and down to the central coast village of Hoi An. In the 17th Century before its river filled with silt, Hoi An's port welcomed Chinese junks. Over the millennia, Portuguese, English, Japanese, Dutch and French trading ships stopped at this old-world trading post, each leaving vestiges ot their stays behind. No longer bustling with traders of old, Hoi An's visitors now explore its ethnically influenced architecture and outfit theremselves with custom made clothing from the multitude of tailors who've set u shop in town. Silk, above all other commoditiies, has remained Hoi An's stock in trade.