My Story – The Road to Ha Long Bay

So here is my little “Journey” or story that changed me, and made me want to tell stories…

 The Road to Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

I cook, and I am passionate about food, where it comes from, and what makes it taste so good in its purity. I love simple fresh food, either cooked and treated well as it comes or sometimes even just raw. I have fond memories of trout fishing with my father, in the Snowy Mountains of Australia, of a freshly caught Rainbow Trout being cooked in a pan over a campfire with a little butter and lemon and nothing else…..oh the taste.

I love to cook food, to be consumed and enjoyed by people with taste, appreciation, and an understanding of what, and where it has come from.

After 15 years in hospitality, working beside the best culinary artists in Sydney Australia, and also spending countless hours perfecting my own creations, I found myself at a crossroad.  I felt that I was not doing my passion justice, and I could not actually have my own restaurant,  unless I went out an explored the rest of the world and all it could offer both me and my passion. I just felt that it needed to be done before I took the next step.

My tastes lay mostly in Asian food – I could not go past the cuisine that stimulates all of our taste sensations, sweet-salt-sour-tart, either all at once, or better still, in those stages it is famous for….and always on one or two or three dishes in one single meal making it a taste bud overload, but in a good way. This eventually inspired me to venture out to the simple, but amazing Vietnam….and for very good fate it seems.

It should be stated that although this is my story, at the time I was with my first love Tessa (the hairdresser with pink hair) so she should be mentioned and thanked.   Hi Tess!  x ;o)

We decided that we would go to Vietnam.

This was my first OS trip, my first trip on a real plane aside from a skydive the year before…so yes I only went up and jumped out, but never landed.

My hope for this trip was to photograph, write and draw my own recipe book, and open my dream restaurant, and of course to blow people’s minds away with those taste sensations I have mentioned earlier.


To cut a long and amazing story short, I think the most memorable meal I had was whilst waiting several hours for a bus to fill up with people, so we could proceed on our first real adventure out of the capital of Hanoi to the very beautiful and breathtaking Ha Long Bay.  This was to be our first venture outside of the Vietnamese capital.  By the way, Hanoi is an amazing cultural experience unto itself.  I would have seen no more than 5 cars in the 3 days we were there, and when you wait in traffic for sometimes hours on end in Sydney to travel 15 k’s, well that hit a soft spot with me.

So back to the bus stop…

There were several small ramshackle shop fronts on that short 100m street, and one was open right across from us. A small girl was tossing ground rice water in a curved hot plate heated by coals, flipping fresh hot sheets of crepes, and spooning a minced pork and herb mixture into each one. She would then pass these small parcels into 3 smaller kids inside.   The shop was  half-built at best –  with just dirt on the floor, and small plastic kids tables and chairs inside.  Being 6 foot tall, I had to duck to walk in and perch myself on one of those tiny chairs.

The young girl behind the counter did not speak English, but I assumed the gesture of Tess and I climbing in was enough to communicate our intention to eat.

30 seconds later, we were served with 3 Vietnamese rice paper rolls each on a red plastic plate. They filled the air with an amazing aroma. I took one bite and blurted “oh my god that tastes amazing!!!”

We took our time, after being offered a warm coke which we accepted, and slowly ate the rolls one watering mouthful at a time, knowing that the bus may still take some to fill. There were only about 10 people waiting and the bus wouldn’t depart until at least 50 people were on board… So, 20 minutes later, we finished our rolls, and I pulled out some money. The girl shook her head as we offered her about $5, smiled and took the small change in my hand and one of my smallest notes, bowed and said “Cám on”. I stupidly said “amazing” but gave that Italian “blow a kiss’ gesture so I think she got the point. I believe at the time our meals came to about 85 cents, including the cokes…..for 2 people.

I continued to experience the pleasure of consuming some amazing meals over the following month, some much more expensive than that, and one particular meal consisted of many small courses over several hours.  That one was my fave.  Not only was every bite a “wow” sensation, but it was simple, fresh, full of love, not greed, and it was served in a way a symphony unfolds, all at the right time…

So our bus arrived, and we were on our way to Ha Long Bay.

It was full of tourists of course (and a few locals), and after going over the main new bridge out of town which passed by the riverside slums, we literally set out on a straight line all the way to the end. Might I add, this was quite a narrow two way road where big buses going both ways just like to drive in the middle for as long as possible until they have to swerve to miss each other – in doing so they may hit a local cow, or goat or even cyclist. We sat close to the front so we could see out the front windows (which was a bad idea in hindsight considering how they drive).   Right in front of us was quite an arrogant loud mouth tourist who had cornered our frail but friendly Vietnamese tour guide.  He was hammering the guide  with a constant stream of questions about why the Vietnam war was won or lost and why ‘they’ did what they did to the Americans (where this tourist was presumably from).  It was painful to witness.

As the bus hurtled itself down the “Road to Ha Long Bay”, we passed by visual pleasures of roadside crops and tiny shacks.   There were usually 5-6 small “homes” all in a perfect row, crooked fences in-between, with perfectly lush gardens right up to the roadside, each one a different colour;  purples, bright and dark greens, sometimes white. The crops were tall and all grown at various perfectly level heights –  it was I would call “little clumps of eye candy” in an otherwise vast wasteland. Our tour guide gave us a sporadic running commentary but it was regularly interrupted  by the aggressive line of questioning and diatribe coming from our tourist friend in front of us.   I did my best to focus on the beauty outside and recorded visual snap-shots in my mind, perhaps to sketch at a later time for my intended cook book.

The bus had passed the last village about 20 minutes ago, we were literally in the middle of nowhere, when we narrowly missed an elderly lady on a bicycle.

She was laden with the biggest pile of colourful vegetation that you could imagine.   Google ” Vietnamese overload” and you might understand what I mean.    What I remember her to be was a very weathered, bony old woman on an equally old and rickety bicycle, covered in a small barnyard’s worth of wares.

I had been watching her as our bus approached, as she slowly came closer to us, I was hoping she had heard us coming and move to the side from the road’s centre.  To my great relief she did swerve at the last second.  I caught a glimpse, like a visual snapshot that photographers see without trying.  She had her head down, and was peddling very slowly, and I watched, turned my head back as she went by, looked out into the vast fields of nothing, not even plantations.

I had a question for our Guide.  I had no choice but to interrupt our loudmouth friend in front, “Excuse me mate, the war is over.  How about giving our Guide a chance to tell us what he wants to share about his country?”.  I turned to our Guide,   “Mister Jon (as he had introduced himself as), where was that lady on the bicycle going?  What was she carrying?  Where was she coming from?”

“Thank you Mister Matt”, he said,  nodding his head. “She is on her way into Hanoi!”

“Really?  That’s about 250 kms away…  and she’s on a bike, covered in…plants and vegetables?” I asked.

“Yes Mister Matt, she has probably come from from the village we will pass in about 20 minutes.   She would have left early this morning and you will see she has the same plants on her bike as the crops by the road we are travelling on”…

Mister Jon continued, “As you may have noticed, there are many little villages spread out on this long road.  They all grow the same things, and they are actually part of a local community, or what you may call a commune.  Once a month, or more frequently if needed, the village delegates one person to deliver all of their crops into Hanoi.  The reason why these people travel all the way into Hanoi is because all the villages are pretty much the same – they can’t really trade anything between them as they grow the same crops.   The journey into Hanoi can take up to 3 days, they stay with their bikes and produce until they have sold all of what they have and then take the money back to the village”.

I then recalled my time in Hanoi and seeing all the women (always women for some reason?) sleeping next to a bike, in the most unusual place in town, sometimes with bananas that I wanted to buy for 3c each, if only they weren’t asleep.   How exhausted must they have been!

It dawned on me…

That’s where real food comes from. That’s where all the AMAZING taste sensations of Vietnam, the fresh food, the herbs, vegetables, meat, all fresh, and all grown organically in the sense that us Westerners may never understand.

So whats my point? How does a food connoisseur such as myself ever open their dream restaurant in Sydney?  How can I make people appreciate food like I have witnessed in its pure element?

I thought I had the answer.

After the month was sadly over, I came back with a a stack of photos, a diary of ink, pencil and watercolor drawings and recipes of what inspired me in that beautiful country.

My first experience back in Sydney, in the restaurant where I worked, involved me being thrown in as the Maitre de for the first time.

“Ok Matt, you have had a nice break, we have all been working hard here, it’s your turn to show us what you can do with 250 people tonight after your recipe tour” were the owners words.  I was ready!

Or so I thought.

It must have been the 3rd couple to enter the restaurant and be seated.  They both took up two seats – each.  They were very wide people.

As the man took his seat(s) he loudly advised the entire restaurant that they were here to celebrate their engagement.  They ordered house wine, despite my recommendation of something more memorable off our wine list that I had compiled from mostly small but outstanding Australian wineries (that did not go down well with me!).

Onto the food.

They ordered 2 entreés – each.  This was followed by 2 mains each, although our female guest did not touch her second main stating that she needed to “keep room for dessert”.   The mains were accompanied by litres of diet cola, and another bottle of house wine which remained untouched.

After a short time the couple were onto dessert.  2 each.  They continued to order more off the menu and graze or rather, quaff down meals until long after many of the restaurant staff had left for the night.   In fact, they probably had no intention of leaving until we were forced to ask them. Their bill came to over $600, whereas a usual dinner for 2 would total $120 (with a good wine to match).  All I could think about was the waste, the greed, the seeming lack of appreciation of taste, and how far $600 could go back over in Vietnam.

I think that was what hit me the hardest.

They walked out without tipping.  I left work at 1am instead of 11pm.

I didn’t sleep very well that night. For some reason my dreams were suddenly shattered.  How could I perceive to accommodate that kind of clientele in my own restaurant?   I just couldn’t.

When I awoke and went into work the next day, I informed my boss that I could not work in the industry ever again and handed in my resignation.

After 15 years in the industry I loved, I had reached a cross-roads, and ended up taking the road to nowhere.

… or so I thought.

Not long after leaving my job, I proceeded to pick up my camera to help me escape from my shattered dreams.  I went out each day  and captured things of beauty….flowers and sunrises, people and places.  Many  months later, during another overseas trip, I realised I was not just snapping random images, but capturing a journey……and I thought I did it well.

My camera will always be that to me. Its an escape, and a journey all in one, and it captures moments in time, some that bring back very fond memories, others not, but always real.

….and my world is now made up of many little stories I will always cherish.

So here we are, 3 years into my own photography business, where just with a little support (well actually a lot, and a lot of love, thank you Jane), I have done something that I think is wonderful, organic, and inspired every day by what possibilities it may bring to me tomorrow.

I am feeding the monster.

Yes, I like to tell stories….but I don’t think I make them up! ;o)

All I can say in hindsight is, if you are one, be an Artist and all that stands for, do what you love, don’t sell out, and if you have something great to offer people will listen…the journey is yours for the taking.

As you were!


Matthew Osborne