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I’m standing on the side of a mountain in Hoa Binh province in northwest Vietnam, my sneakers coated in mud. It’s a rainy, bitter-cold March afternoon. My travel companions are Eric Ripert, the Michelin three-star Manhattan chef behind the incredible West 51st Street restaurant Le Bernardin, Domaine de Canton creator John Cooper and his master blender, Jean François Bardou. All four of us have, it seems, allowed excitement and passion to get in the way of common sense. We’ve come to Vietnam for ginger, to see where the aromatic, spicy herb is grown. Even though the country’s production of it is tiny compared with the industry’s leaders (India and China have more than 50 percent of the market), many say it’s among the finest. We pictured flat rice paddies lined instead with rows of ginger plants. Were we crazy or what?
Two days earlier, I had been in the lovingly restored mahogany lobby of the French colonial–style Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel, in the heart of Hanoi, getting to know these guys. Let me back up for a moment: For the last two years, I’ve been working on mastering the perfect ginger cookie, which is why I was asked to become a ginger hunter by Eric and John. I’d never met Eric, though I had dined on his ravishing seafood—scallop slivers in lemon-rosemary vinaigrette; poached halibut with braised artichoke and water chestnuts—many times during his 17 years at the helm. John and I had only been introduced in December. For John, no stranger to the spirits industry (his father created Chambord), this was to be a personal journey. Together, he and Jean François had found the perfect blend of ginger, Cognac, honey, vanilla and ginseng to bring Domaine de Canton to life. He’s been importing Vietnamese baby ginger since 2008 and finally wanted to see the real thing.
Eric and John, meanwhile, had become fast friends in 2007, after John sent Eric a bottle of Domaine for its launch; Eric liked the liqueur so much, he asked for a meeting. Today the recipe booklet that accompanies each bottle contains specially created dishes by Eric and drinks by John. Together, these two dreamed up this seven-day trip, first and foremost to source John’s ginger but also to experience this dynamic country and the French and Chinese influences that infuse everything from its food and architecture to its culture and people. We would begin and end in Hanoi, and after the ginger hunt there would be visits to the southern port of Hoi An, which glowed with exquisite silk and paper lanterns in celebration of the full moon; and Hue, to see the historic Thien Mu Pagoda temple with the rusted car of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself aflame in protest of South Vietnam’s Diem regime.
In Hanoi, our focus is food. Leaving the Metropole, our merry band of ginger trekkers sets out for our first meal together. We head to Cha Ca Thang Long, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, to try the restaurant’s famous cha ca, or grilled fish. We quickly realize we’ll be preparing the fragrant dish ourselves. But who cares when you have a renowned chef with you? Eric gracefully combines all the ingredients—onions, dill, crushed peanuts, mint, rice noodles and chunks of char-grilled fish—in a skillet with fish sauce and cooks with a smile. I do the same from the other end of the table—not as gracefully, but I get the job done, and it tastes heavenly.
The next morning Tracey Lister, who co-runs the Hanoi Cooking Centre (close to 3,500 people from around the world take her classes each year), leads us on her first-rate culinary walking tour. She first takes us to Pho Huyen, a noodle shop in the city’s French Quarter. The piping-hot bowls of pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken) are topped with slices of lime and chiles. The flavors are divine.
We wander into the nearby Cho Chau Long market, a tented wonderland of meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. Everything has been butchered or pulled from the earth only hours earlier. The guys are on the lookout for ginger, and we spot some stacked high in red buckets. It’s mature ginger root (harvested by hand after seven months); John buys the harder-to-find baby ginger (pulled from the ground after just four months). Sourcing from Vietnam, John says, started as an inspiration for the liqueur, which was created during colonial Indochina, but ended up being based on flavor. Chinese, Australian, Jamaican ginger, all of which he’d tasted, just didn’t cut it. Vietnamese baby ginger imparts a good spice that’s not overpowering. It’s also a little sweeter, with nice aromatic elements.
After the market tour, we stop at Banh Cuon Thanh Van for lunch number two. Tracey orders bahn cuon, steamed crepe-like rolls stuffed with ground pork. Ca cuong, made from the essence of water beetles, is usually added to the rolls in tiny droplets, but we were served small glasses of essence and a plate of steamed beetles. The essence tastes like a crisp green apple and is actually lovely. Eric’s the first to eat a beetle, dipping it in fish sauce with lime and sugar. I can’t say any of us loved the bug, but this authentic experience was a thrill.
Our second day ends at Chim Sao, one of the city’s best restaurants. Housed in a two-story building in the Old Quarter, it has an ambiance that’s as chic as it is old-fashioned. We sit on pillows around a low table; paintings by local artists hang on the walls. The food is positively sublime: chopped beef with mint, banana flower salad and pigeon grilled with lemon leaves. Conversation turns to tomorrow’s trip. Not knowing what lies ahead, we’re giddy and nervous at the same time.
We wake up to rain. As we drive southwest toward Hoa Binh, the mountainous region where most Vietnamese ginger is grown, green rice paddies dot the landscape; the high, craggy peaks covered in mist look spooky. Two hours in, we stop for a mediocre lunch at Palm’s Garden, a popular tourist spot. Just as a sea of tour buses arrive, we scramble back into the van. We finally come to a stop in front of a large body of water surrounded by mountains. There are no fields. No farmers. No signs of industrialization. Our guide, sensing our confusion, mentions that we need to take a boat across the Hoa Binh reservoir. Fifty thousand people were evicted years ago to make room for this waterway. Once we’re across, two farmers nod hello and lead us up a very steep, very muddy hill. Wearing inappropriate footwear for a dangerous hike such as this, we slip and fall as we climb the narrow trail. It’s becoming clear that ginger is not grown in fields. We stop under a rocky overhang and I call it quits. The guys carry on—they have come this far, and there is no turning back. Soon I hear boisterous shouting as the three come barreling down the mountain. Eric is beaming, a ginger root the size of a large fist in his hand. The trek up the mountain had grown steeper, the trail narrower, but John enthusiastically describes how the farmer pointed to tiny nubs sticking out of the ground and how they dug like truffle pigs until the ginger root came free. “There is nothing better than this,” John says as we slowly make our way back down to the boat. We later learn that ginger is grown all naturally on hillsides with clay soil, allowing the rain to run over the growing areas so as not to pool or collect, the opposite of rice farming.
Back in Hanoi, on our last night in Vietnam, we reminisce about our week’s adventures over dinner at Angelina, the Metropole’s restaurant. John pulls out some Domaine and supervises the bartender as he makes ginger sidecars. Drinks in hand, we look at each other and laugh, our merry band of ginger trekkers forever bonded over a journey both culinary and worldly.
Recipe: Ginger Sidecar
1 part Domaine de Canton
1 part cognac
Squeeze juice of a lemon wedge and serve in a chilled martini glass.