Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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Vietnam: Acquiring a Taste for the Spice of Life

Under a balmy sky in bustling Ho Chi Minh City, women in traditional non la hats are watering immaculately tended parks, while buses and bikes with incomprehensible loads—from baths and live pigs to families of five—compete for pavement along leafy avenues lined with grand colonial buildings.

Photos: A Foodie Travels to Vietnam

Brown + Hudson
Preparations are laid out for the grilled chicken and banana-flower salad at the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An.
In the center of town on the frenetic Pasteur Street, the smell of piquant spices and warm broth permeates the air, and an eager crowd is milling under a gold sign. Pho Hoa is arguably the best pho shop in town, and the bustling business churns out 400 bowls of the piping-hot soup a day. Herbs I have never encountered before, like sawgrass, are piled high onto a plate in the middle of our table and we are encouraged to fill our bowls as the owner explains that it is the mixture of beef bones, aloe vera and ginger that gives pho its distinct taste. The rich broth is balanced perfectly by the sharpness of the chili and fresh lime, and a restorative fragrance is added by the herbs. It is by far the best pho I've ever had.
This is the first stop on my culinary tour of Vietnam. From imperial Hue cuisine in the north to simple street food, the eight-day trip takes me through the gastronomic peaks and valleys of this country's diverse cuisine. Organized by London-based travel company Brown & Hudson, part of a new wave of upmarket companies offering bespoke culinary tours, it is an informative mixture of food exploration and history lesson. These tailor-made trips by firms like such as Tasting Places and Creative Escapes of the U.K. and U.S.-based Remote Lands give visitors an insider's perspective of the countries they are touring, with local experts guiding them through unique experiences, in-the-know restaurants and places not normally open to the public, such as private vineyards and kitchens. While the hotels are top-notch and transportation is comfortable, these holidays are for those seeking something more—the acquisition of knowledge and new skills.

Rebuilt Dresden Offers Guests History, Charm

What it's like: There are few German cities more pleasant to visit on business than Dresden on a warm summer's day. The city, formerly in East Germany, even has a beach—a man-made strip of sand on one bank of the River Elbe.
European Pressphoto Agency
Steamboats on the River Elbe with the Church of Our Lady in the background.
It's all very different from a few years ago when rain drenched this part of Germany and the Elbe burst its banks. Few of the magnificent buildings in the historic Aldtstadt (Old Town) escaped water damage. For weeks, the magnificent Zwinger Museum and the Semper Opera House, the castle and the cathedral became virtually islands in a sea of devastation. Happily, everything is now back to normal.
Dresden is, of course, no stranger to disaster. Some of the older members of the population still remember the devastation caused by Allied fire bombing on Feb. 13, 1945, when thousands of people were killed. The city still bears grim reminders of that fateful night. But the long and often sad history of Dresden does nothing to alter the fact that this is a very pleasant city to visit on business. The dark days before Germany's reunification are well in the past and there is a new and exciting optimism.
All around the Altdstadt and across the Augustusbrucke—the bridge over the Elbe leading to Albert-Platz and the Neustadt (New Town)—people sit outside bars and restaurants enjoying the sunshine.
It is impossible not to be impressed with the architecture of grand old buildings such as the Royal Palace (Residenzschloss), built in 1530 for Duke George the Bearded, and the Katholische Hofkirche, or cathedral, which dominate the Dresden skyline; the Theaterplatz, designed in 1912 in the New Baroque style, and of course the Semper Opera House, reflecting Dresden's fame as a musical center frequented by famous composers throughout the years.