The Vietnamese are very busy people. Both men and women work extremely hard and the results are everywhere to see. Every pocket of land is cultivated (my favourite being a strip between a pavement and a dual carriageway) and the paddy fields are full of little conical hats, stooping over the rice which turns golden when it is ready to harvest. As with everywhere in Asia, rice production is key and their climate allows for more harvests per year (up to 3) than in Laos.
Mornings start early: women wake at 2.30 to put on the famous ‘pho’ for the Nation’s breakfast. Like any good stock / broth, it is better not to ask what goes into it (innards, feet, dog and the dregs of last year’s stock are definite contenders) but with a little addition of fish sauce (omnipresent) and chili, who cares. To the clear broth, a handful of fresh noodles is added and some form of protein (chicken or prawn being personal favourites) and fresh herbs / spring onion. Breakfast is served.
Service could be from a corner shop (safest for delicate westerners) but is most likely to be on a pavement, where some cool old granny has brings her two baskets hanging one on each end of a pole, which contain a big pot of the magical substance and ingredients one end and some little plastic stools in the other. Restaurant created. People chow down with their chopsticks on a fully nutritional breakfast, and drink the infamous broth straight from the large bowl.
Going out for meals is definitely the norm and you are utterly surrounded by food – especially in Hanoi – at all times. Baskets, bikes and mopeds are all ‘enhanced’ with extraordinary, cumbersome, food-bearing (and everything-else-bearing) appendages, and their poor drivers tour the streets for customers, competing with hilarious amount of traffic. These vendors are selling everything from fanta and pringles to sweet treats, which are more likely to be bought on the street than cooked at home as they require special equipment; sticky, caramel and sesame seed covered rice balls and steamed buns, or BBQ’d bananas are the top sellers. This is how Vietnam has it’s sugar fix; even the best restaurants mistakenly think that ‘fresh fruit’ is a satisfactory pudding menu…
And as for chocolate, my one attempt ended in a disappointingly white and brittle triangle of milk chocolate Toblerone, tasting mysteriously like sawdust. I have, however, seen a smiling traveler tucking into some cashew nut Dairy Milk – mmmm. Again, the French colonial influence saves the day with patisserie (and baguettes) sold in lovely cafés. Oh, and their (or was it the American?) introduction of cocktails; my lemon grass martini and ginger mojito on the roof terrace of the Hotel Rex in Saigon – home to the famous ‘Five o’clock Follies’ (puppet’ press conferences) during the ‘Nam war – were pretty hard to beat.
Two food experiences have broken through this everyday culinary landscape. Firstly, a visit to the war time tunnels created and inhabited by the Viet Cong (victorious guerrilla army of Vietnamese Communists) outside Saigon. Their war tactics seem principally to have been based on natural instinct and cunning; human traps made of needle sharp bamboo covered in resin, entrances to the tunnels made too small for fat Yankees to fit through; tunnel ventilation shafts in the shape of the native termite mounds and – my favourite – the use of chili and pepper powder to throw US dogs off the tunneler’s scent. (They later discovered that this potent combination was in fact making the dogs sneeze, thereby highlighting their whereabouts, so they turned to soaking bits of US army uniform in soap and tobacco to emulate the smell of the dogs owners.)
Their ways of cooking what little they had were ingenious. Any smoke from the tunnels would have been fatal so they created a system whereby chimneys were made up up of 7 water-filled chambers. The smoke passed through these, getting heavy with water vapour so by the time it reached the foliage-covered outlet, it just spilled out along the ground like a thin carpet of dry ice. Brilliant.
The second experience was more an ‘East meets West’ cultural thing. I have become used to seeing pigs (alive and strapped upside down onto the back of a moped) chickens and all other sorts of things being ferried about the streets, on the way to market. But nothing could prepare me for the truck driving past full of dogs crammed into tiny cages. As they whisked past my nose, barking and whelping, all the canine locals – some pets, some mange-y little things – ran after, barking frantically. I suddenly wanted to give a hug to our lovely, soppy spaniel at home. Sad for us but to an Asian, no different to squealing pigs.
Despite that and a little mention of the annoyingly present MSG, I can honestly say that Vietnam is firmly on my list for a return visit. It’s tangibly hideous recent history provides a complicated, sad but not altogether negative landscape; the Vietnamese seem to consider themselves winners and the people are busy building the best lives possible. This makes for a great traveling, eating and cultural experience..and some naughtily cheap but beautifully tailored dresses in the post back to the UK.