Good Mornings in Vietnam

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.

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Vietnam – Food Mecca

Hanoi – the most ludicrously hectic city I have been to ever but it is just fantastic. Within moments of arriving, I got into a cold, scanky shower and attempted to turn myself into a chic westerner, worthy of a cocktail in what had been described to me as ‘ the best hotel EVER.’ So off I sped* to the Metropole (with difficulty as neither our receptionist or our guide knew it – it wasn’t their normal request) to meet an ex-pat for one of these legendary treats.* no tuk tuks here – alas – just taxis called Vina Sun. A personal chariot no less?? No, Vina means Vietnamese so everything from coffee to phone networks and electric fans are prefixed with ‘Vina’ – nice.

Together Abby and I both felt compelled to order a ‘Graham Greene’ – the name of the author of ‘The Quiet American’ which I am currently reading, and which was written in this lovely hotel. 2 of the most delicious lemon sorbet daiquiri type things down, followed by copious quantities of passionfruit and hibiscus flower rice wine down, and I cant remember anything about the food (apart from cat-fish spring rolls – yummy) or where we ate it. We did however, finally end up on Beer Corner, in a pavement bar on little plastic stools, drinking beer (I must have been pissed) eating heated, dried fish from a lady of 102. Needless to say, it was all too much and my tummy was out of action of a long and miserable 48 hours.

A lot of ginger tea and ritz crackers later (the brand reigns supreme here, along with Oreos – wierd) and I finally was back on the gastro-wagon yesterday. Having missed the culinary specialities of Hue completely, (totally gutting…literally!) I had serious ground to make up. So I gobbled down a delicious bowl of Pho (pronounced Fer) which is meant to be especially good for tummies and waded through the monsoon to the market. Despite fish heads, chickens feet and far too many live birds, it was foody heaven. The smell of the fresh herbs were overpowering and it was clear that the sellers had no time for us – the focus here is on speed of sale as they can only get money for fresh produce. Day old herbs are past it and these people need the cash today.

Unlike Laos, the women here see the market as their social activity and the noise of high-pitched chattering reminded me of flocks of swallows. They were smiling and laughing as they went, the stall handlers preparing the ‘ ready for immediate cooking, or tying them up beautifully with spring onions. They do this while crouched in the most extraordinary positions on the stall or on the floor. They look like monkeys. No wonder ‘massage’ is seen as a way of life here – I would need one daily.

Back to the most delicious restaurant for a stellar cooking course. This cuisine is way more refined than in Laos which is partly due to the Imperial influence of the Nguyen dynasty. They really learned how to refine dishes, despite ingredients – especially meat – not being at all abundant. This, mixed with the chinese influence, mean that food is not only delicate, but is also beautiful  – the picture about if on the soup we made with shrimp parcels wrapped in cabbage leaves and tied with spring onions. Very impressive if I say so myself..

Our teacher said that this cabbage soup was always made by brides the day after their wedding, for their new mother in law. Unlike Italy, it is not purely a test to show the mother in law that you are qualified to keep their son full, fat and happy – it is more to assure them that your cooking is good n\enough to keep the husband coming home to be fed and not going gallivanting around town, thereby assuring a long and happy marriage.

Spring rolls are also key and there are 4 different types of rice paper for the 4 different types – fresh, steamed, friend and deep-fried. We made fresh ones which were not only totally delicious but beautiful  – the aesthetics were carefully instructed! I later found out that rice paper was initially introduced as a way to eat things while keeping your fingers from getting sticky – hence everything is eaten wrapped up, including their infamous ‘Banh’  – fried omlettes. Photos of how the fresh rice paper is made to follow.

The most important thing in everything we did was to learn the importance of balance. Over and above the 5 key principles of Asian cuisine: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy, the Vietnamese have 5 more: crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft and silky. This means that the spring rolls may have a deep friend mini spring rolls in it to provide the essential textural crunch. It all made so much sense and follows the guiding principles here of Yin and Yang. Yin being feminine, light, summery, sour flavours and Yang being heavy, wintry, spicy and warming flavours, If dishes aren’t balanced, then meals are, and the results are incredible.

We went back to the same place ‘Morning Glory Cookery School’ for supper and had the green mango salad again – it was too good to resist. The flavours were so full they provided sensory overload. So much so that the glasses of wine we had allowed ourselves (more, to better cope with the elephantine snoring of room-mate than desire) were left standing full. Teas (lemon grass / ginger) or green tea, or just the soup liquid are what the locals drink. Beer or (fruit shakes) are what the tourists go for. .

I have reached Food Mecca.