why are you going to vietnam?

I can't tell you how many times I heard this question in the weeks leading up to our departure. It got fairly grating, especially when it was inflected in that way that implies "are you crazy?" This generally didn't come from close friends or family, who are at least accustomed to our incessant novelty-seeking, even if they don't completely understand or appreciate it. More typically, this question came from the sort of casual acquaintances that fill the gaps between the times I get to be with people whose opinions I actually care about.

Unfortunately, life is full of these people.

It took all the self-control I could muster to not say "because you would never go there," even though there is more than a little truth to this statement. (Someone even asked me if we were going there to adopt a Vietnamese baby. You can't make this shit up.) Even the travel agent M spoke with was perplexed. Needless to say, this travel agent did not get our business.

I could give you a lot of high-minded stuff about broadening horizons, challenging assumptions, testing the limits of ones comfort zone, etc., etc. And all of that would have a kernel of truth to it. I could also point out that while getting there is expensive, being there is terribly affordable, and you get tremendous value for your money.

But the honest answer is that we went there to eat.

If you know anything about Vietnamese food, you know about pho*, the beef noodle soup that is generally consumed for breakfast in Vietnam. To be sure, we had plenty of pho, though to be honest, I've had it just as good in Vietnamese restaurants here. Soup for breakfast is highly underrated in the west.

But really, pho is just a good place to start. Vietnamese food is all about flavor and freshness. It is very light. Fresh herbs (especially basil, mint, and cilantro) abound, as well as very flavorful lettuces and varieties of green onion. Fish sauce is the main condiment (try it on pizza!) Meat is typically marinated without oil, and grilled. Seafood is big on the coast. Pork is big everywhere. And of course, rice is the main staple, though often in the form of noodles, wrappers, dumplings, buns, or cakes. There is little in the way of "added fat": no cheese, little cream, and even things that are fried are typically done very fast at very high temperatures so that little oil is absorbed.

It is actually quite difficult for me to say what the best thing I had was. The truth is, we never had a bad meal in Vietnam. Probably the worst thing I ate was a banana crepe I had at a hotel breakfast one morning that was cooked in too much and/or too cool vegetable oil. And even that was pretty good.

Highlights (far from exhaustive):

--The food counters at Ben Thanh market in Saigon. We ate here a lot. There are probably two dozen stalls you can sit at that serve up various specialties. Wander into this section of the market, and you will soon find yourself seated on a tiny plastic stool with food in front of you, whether you are hungry or not. The ladies behind the counters will point you to what they are most proud of. Just go with it. Spring rolls. Pork skewers. Banana leaves wrapped around some delicious concoction of meat and fruit. Meat paste wrapped around bamboo shoots and grilled to perfection. And, yes, they all have pho...

--Banh mi: the Vietnamese equivalent of a sub sandwich. A baguette (God bless French colonialism!) typically filled with grilled meat or pate, vegetables, herbs, and (I think) some sort of vinegar-based dressing. Generally found on the street, and well into the night, typically for about 10,000 dong ($0.60) each.

--Banh xeo: rice pancakes filled with bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp, fried, wrapped in lettuce or mustard greens and dipped in fish sauce.

--Banh beo (see the picture above): steamed rice buns filled with all kinds of savory goodness. Regional variations exist...in Hoi An, they had pork, bean paste, fried shallots, and a boiled quail (or some other small bird) egg. Also available on the street. They sell out quick.

--Cha Ca La Vong. A Hanoi institution that serves one dish, a fish fried in a hot oil pan at your table. You add herbs, greens, and noodles. It's stupidly good. They re-named the street for the restaurant.

--Quan an Ngon. A massive restaurant near the Reunification Palace in HCMC. Everyone will tell you to go there. Everyone is correct...but go for lunch, or an early dinner at a minimum. We went there (for the second time, thankfully) after 8PM and 2/3 of the menu was "finished". I ate a lot of different stuff there, but the best was snails stuffed with pork, which nearly moved me to tears.

*Apologies to any Vietnamese readers/speakers...I just don't have it in me figure out the coding for all the inflection marks that would make this and all other Vietnamese words I'm going to use correct.


Gino said...

i discovered viet food while soon after moving to anaheim, and close to little saigon, about 10 yrs ago.

tasty,tasty stuff. with a mind and character of its own. its wrong to say 'it's kinda like chinese...'.

no. its not.

how much for a large bowl of pho over there?

Marsosudiro said...

Thanks for the pix. And thank God I just had a really good late dinner, else I would be eating my computer screen right now.

Brian said...

Gino--I honestly don't remember, but I doubt it was ever more than 20,000 VND (about $1.20).

garyharlan said...

I made my third trip to Vietnam in 1994. That was the first time I actually experienced Vietnamese cuisine. I was limited to C-rations the first two "visits." At any rate, I, too, love their food--especially pho. I was also asked why in the world I would want to return to Vietnam, and I had a very straightforward answer: I wanted to leave the war once and for all. And I accomplished that mission. I haven't had a single nightmare since returning home.
I appreciate your adventurous spirit. Where else did you go besides HMC? I spent a week in Hanoi. Coming from the Ozarks, I found it much more to my liking than HMC.

Brian said...

We were in Saigon, Hanoi, Hoi An, and Phu Quoq, as well as a side trip to Siem Reap/Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

I can definitely see the appeal of Hanoi...it is certainly a more modern city (than HCMC) and I think a little richer on the cultural side of things. (The climate is certainly more agreeable, as well.) I also think Hanoi is probably a better "high-end" destination, in terms of hotels, restaurants, etc.

But for me personally, HCMC was more my speed. A little more chaotic, colorful, and friendly. I would not presume that my preferences would map onto anyone else's, though...I like Philly better than NYC, I like Tucson better than Scottsdale, and I like Durham better than Raleigh.

garyharlan said...

I also think Hanoi is probably a better "high-end" destination, in terms of hotels, restaurants, etc.

I appreciate your telling me this. I must say, it comes as a surprise, for that was certainly not the case in '94. I look forward to observing all the changes (in 2010).
gary harlan

Brian said...

I can't even imagine how much the country has changes since 1994. The pace of development (particularly in HCMC and Hanoi) is breakneck...there is construction everywhere. Skyscrapers and condos are sprouting up all over the cities.

In fact, during the 13 days between when we left Saigon at the front of our trip and then returned to catch our plane home, a new Circle K and a new restaurant had gone up withing a ~3 block radius of our hotel.

Also, I can't say enough good stuff about Hoi An. I wish we'd spent at least a week there.

Thanks for dropping by...I do intend to write a bit more about Vietnam (and Cambodia) in the next couple of weeks.