Beautiful Vietnam
Vietnamese food: Lively, lighthearted, lovely
  • | Vancouver Sun | June 19, 2010 09:52 AM

Last fall, I was in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Cambodia, but my heart belonged to Vietnam, especially its food. (Hong Kong’s food is pretty well represented in Vancouver and as for Cambodia ... well, it’s not known for its gustatory delights.)

Inflated rice balls make a big impression.
A market in Hanoi.
Vietnam’s Can Tho market offers an amazing array of fruits and vegetables.
A woman in Hanoi hawks pho from gigantic cooking pots.

I’ve always yearned for more exciting Vietnamese food in Vancouver, but knew I’d have to follow it to its source for the thrills.

Vietnam confirmed my belief that Vietnamese food is a lot like its people — lively, light-hearted, lovely. And good-humoured. (How else would you describe a giant, golden, inflated rice balloon with a rice pattycake hiding inside?) Somehow, that buoyant nature has survived in the people and the food through the bloodiest of wars. A grandmother toothily laughs. A translator tells us she’s asking if we understand her babbling baby grandson in English because he’s sure not speaking Vietnamese.

I was smitten. Even the city traffic, which seems more like a national suicide pact (motorbikes, bicycles, cars, people, tuk-tuks darting in every conceivable direction without the logic of lanes, traffic lights, or rules of the road) won’t deter me from going back.

Going from Hanoi in the north to Central Vietnam and down to Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to as Saigon by most locals) and the Mekong Delta, the food changed with the geography and climate which morphs from temperate to tropical.

Vancouver’s Vietnamese restaurants only skim the surface of regional variations of food in that country. We don’t see the amazing produce or taste the intensity of herbs or variations of the nuoc nam , the fermented fish sauce, a signature taste in so many Vietnamese dishes.

In Hanoi, we had to try the one-dish restaurant, Cha Cha La Vong. The dish? It’s called cha cha — monkfish fried with dill, turmeric, rice noodles and peanuts. They bring a charcoal hibachi to the table and you cook the fish and a pile o’ greens yourself. The restaurant has been there for several generations and the staff is said to be gruff (unusual in Vietnam, but the matriarch took a shine to us and came and cooked ours for us in between counting out dongs (Vietnamese currency) at the next table, their evening’s take. It’s grungy (Molly Maids would have heart attacks), but it’s so famous that copycat restaurants have sprung up, messing with your mind. The cha cha was delicious.

It would be unforgivable to wimp out on trying street food for fear of gut-wrenching illness. We searched for ones that came recommended (my neighbour, who’d been to Vietnam a year earlier, recommended a pho seller, for instance).

One night, we went to a place that sold great pork patties and shrimp spring rolls. Gratefully, we sat at a table, not on the plastic toddler stools that Westerners look ridiculous on, at some of these places. The food was good and my stomach inflated like that rice balloon.

My husband, however, didn’t want to miss out one chance to try the street pho that our neighbour, Karen, had recommended. I watched in amazement as he went in search of it, sat down with the locals and slurped back a heaping bowl of pho. Mom and son threw enormous cuts of meat to each other, sliced off thin slices and threw slices into steaming bowls. Locals looked astonished when they thought a stranger reached out for my husband’s pho (it was me) and took a big, noisy slurp. It was, despite the optics, delicious.

Wild Lotus, in Hanoi, is in a gorgeous French colonial building. (The French left behind beautiful buildings and A something of their food culture, unlike the Americans, who left bomb craters.) We followed a marble staircase and passed by a fountain en route to the second-floor restaurant with a modern tropical feel. Slender female servers (they’re all small and pretty) wore ao dai (those silky, side-slit tops) and males wore suits. Astonishingly, main dishes were an average $6 Cdn. Deep-fried prawns bundled in vermicelli, served with plum sauce; grilled sea bass; morning glory leaves, sauteed in garlic; pork loin with cashews, mushrooms, dried chili, spring rolls in shredded rice noodles — and the bill came to about $60 with wine.

You should use a guidebook because you’ll run into horrid food just like anywhere. We ducked into a nice-looking place for breakfast one morning and “shirred eggs” turned out to be an eggy sauce with a lid of goopy cheese and bits of ham. Yech!

In Central Vietnam, at Hoi An (where my husband had the equivalent of a Zegna suit tailored for $350), we ate at a string of food stalls along the Thu Bon River, returning to “Mr. Dong’s” a few times for the “white rose,” a regional specialty of shrimp dumplings in clear rice dough. But the banana pancakes and noodles were just as good. (Dong is also the word for Vietnamese currency, a challenge to say for an inhibited North American.) Breakfast was included at the hotels we stayed in and at Hoi An, we could have had a sumptuous Vietnamese buffet every morning with dim sum-like dishes that changed daily.

Cafe des Amis came recommended in guide books and was a heck of a deal with seven courses for about $12, but it was most memorable for the owner, a Mr. Kim, decked out in black leather pants and jacket, a smoking bon vivant, strutting among guests, telling stories he must have told a thousand times.

A young couple we met from London led us through the dark alleys of Hoi An and to their discovery, a restaurant called Secret Garden, not in guide books. We ended up taking group photos with the friendly staff after a meal of star anise soup, pork and fish tamarind hotpot and pork skewers.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I’d stand, each morning, at the fourth-floor window of our hotel, looking down at a woman who made rounds on her bicycle, draped with bags and bags of produce, eggs, fish, meat. Women from shops would saunter out, leisurely check out the fare and buy a little bit of this and a little bit of that. (And no, it wasn’t refrigerated.) Then she’d move on, plastic bags rustling.

Vietnamese supermarkets don’t exist. Food is bought at markets or vendors on the street. The floating markets are very cool. We put-put-putted around the boats early one morning before taking off down the Mekong on a “Heart of Darkness” journey to an eco-lodge.

At Ho Chi Minh City, my all-time favourite spot was Quan An Ng, a brilliant idea. Cooking stations circle the perimeter of an elegant French colonial-style restaurant; each one is a stall with cooks making street foods from all over Vietnam. You can walk around, check out all the regional specialties at the stations and point and order or order off the menu. Can they please open one in Vancouver?

The most modern Vietnamese meal was at the sleekly modern Xu restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. A four-course tasting menu was about $27; an eight-course went for $44. The menu features dishes like tuna spring roll and black sesame seared tuna; steamed rice flour roll with fish, bean shoots and roasted shallots; tamarind-braised beef cheeks with pumpkin mash and pumpkin flower; crab soup with boiled quail egg, peanut and chili; scallops with green mango noodle salad and lemongrass dressing. Desserts? Durian cream puff and chocolate caramel tart.

I had a dramatically memorable dish from along the Mekong Delta. On a bike trip, we had a lunch of elephant ear fish which was deep-fried whole and mounted like a trophy on a wooden stand, dramatic as heck.

What I won’t dwell on here is the part of Vietnamese cuisine I can’t bear. Even the thought of a snake farm at one of the towns we biked was enough to send me on a detour. At an outdoor coconut candy factory, I bought some of the taffy-like confections, trying not to look into the eyes of the coiled vipers, trapped in bottles of rice wine, said to invigourate libidos.

In the same shop, lots of alligator purses, perhaps siblings of the ones we saw in a muddy pond?

But getting back to the good stuff, another unforgettable Vietnamese culinary tradition is their insanely good coffee. It’s intense and delicious, dripped slowly into condensed milk if you don’t want it neat. We brought a few bags home, but I think you have to be Vietnamese to make it so good.

And dare I say, I think that to be true of the food, too.

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