I remember spending 50% of my bank account to take Anne out for Vietnamese food before her college graduation. It was a nice little Vietnamese restaurant in New Haven and and from that point on, I have counted Vietnamese as one of my favorite cuisines. In fact one of my favorite restaurants in the world is Vietnamese. It is kind of a dive but, If you happen to be in San Francisco, you can check out Thanh Long. Order the garlic noodles and the fresh crabs; you will not be disappointed. My good friend Annie Miu Hayward took me there years ago, and each time I have gone back it has been just as delectable. However, after being in Vietnam for a a week, I realized my love of Vietnamese food was based entirely on my experience with the country’s more upscale cuisine. Our experience here has all been with more common food. We’ve eaten at a number of restaurants, some of them strictly Vietnamese and some of them serving a mix of Western and Vietnamese foods. Most of them have been good but not outstanding. Rather than being amazed by the entire cuisine the way we were in China, we have instead found a few things we like and focused on those dishes.
The entire family has embraced the national beef noodle soup pho (pronounced fur) bo. Anne and I love the spring rolls and everyone chows down on grilled pork, fresh fruit, and baguettes. We eat 80% of the time in restaurants. There is cheaper and sometimes better looking food prepared on the street, but we usually walk right on by. Let me point out that when I say prepared on the street, it literally is prepared on the street. Women carry their restaurants around on their backs, choose a spot, set their stools out, and start cooking on their portable charcoal cookeries. The selection is varied and all the customers appear to be enjoying their curbside meals. We remain a little cautious about what we buy off the street. If there were not six stomachs at risk, I think we would be more daring, but getting sick this early in the trip isn’t worth the risk. On some future trip I will return and sample the street kitchens.
One of our culinary highlights has been a street food cooking class. Dax, McKane and I spent about 4 hours learning to make spring-rolls and bun cha and how to carve pineapples the Vietnamese way. Before and during the lesson we learned a whole lot about the Vietnamese culture and their cooking. A number of things stood out to us as major differences between our cultures. The first was their use of the marketplace. The Vietnamese women go to the market once or twice a day. They buy everything fresh and cook it the same day. In Vietnam freshness is critical and everything at the market is straight off the plant or from the slaughter. We were told if you buy pork around lunchtime, the pig was killed in the morning. If you buy it in the afternoon, the pig was killed around noon.
McKane, Kieran and I took a walk through one of these local markets. Each vendor has a selection of goods they sell. Most of the time they fit one general category such as meat or vegetables. Sometimes they are very specific like dog or shrimp. Occasionally a vendor with an odd selection such as pork and pineapples would be in the mix. The paths you walk to get through the market are one person wide with shops on either side. The zoning laws appear to be somewhat random with a fish shop next to a grain shop next to a fruit shop. Most of the food was recognizable, however there were a few items we needed to ask our cooking teacher, An, for help understanding. We had some guesses but didn’t believe a whole plate would be dog testicles or all the slimy things in a bowl were “centiworms.”
Our teacher and the owner of the cooking school, “Hidden Hanoi,” was the lovely An. She is married to an Australian who runs the local backpacker hostel and her English is great. Perhaps that is because in a previous life she taught linguistics at university. She welcomed us with a great big smile and immediately became our friend. McKane asked me if she was really that friendly or just doing her job. I told him I found her genuine and loved the insights she gave us into everyday life in Vietnam and the differences between our cultures. Most of our conversation centered around food. An explained to us that most ingredients are confined to their season here. When it is time for nice little mandarins, all the markets have them. When the season is over the fruit goes away. At home I pay attention to the growing season for a few fruits, such as apples, but we have become spoiled to have most fruits and vegetables available year round.
Another major cultural difference is the kitchen. Vietnamese kitchens are small 2×3 ft spaces just outside the door to the house. The women (not a sexist comment, men don’t cook here) sit cooking on the floor. They can’t imagine leaning over a counter to cook. They use only fresh ingredients and have no need for refrigeration, as they eat what they buy each day. Though many newly wealthy Vietnamese families now have refrigerators as status symbols, they leave them empty, occasionally even unplugged in their apartments or houses. Many build fully equipped, purely decorative Western kitchens in their new houses, but still use a second, small Vietnamese kitchen outside. We found one Western kitchen which was used as a parking structure for motorbikes.
The boys did a great job cutting, cooking, and even eating the food from our lesson. I explained to them both that if they remember how to put this whole meal together, they will score some great points with the ladies when they get older. That was beyond their level of comprehension, but I predict we will look back five years from now and one or both of them will use some or all of the skills we picked up to woo members of the opposite sex. The only problem with the whole experience was the boys learned that all Vietnamese food uses fish sauce. I had tried to convince them is was a different kind of soy sauce, but now that they understand it is made from small fish and not small beans, the tenor of our meals has changed.
The single biggest thing I was looking forward to in Vietnam was the food. One of my favorite blogs for the last few years has been Stickyrice.com, a blog about food in Vietnam. I love it for a number of reasons. The first is their shared enjoyment of everything edible. The second is the wonderful photos of food they always have in their posts. Their portrayal of Vietnam as a land of simple yet wonderful epicurean delights set high expectations, one I am not sure the country is meeting. However, this leg of the trip is not over, and I will keep eating pho and continue to try new things, centiworms and dog testicles excluded. What I hear from the other travelers is we all need to be packing on the kilos before we start shedding them in India.