I spent a month in Vietnam almost exactly 13 years ago. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I fell in love with the country. A bowl of noodle soup was $.25, Western fast food hadn’t quite invaded, I don’t recall many traffic lights and there were hardly any tourists. In fact, I only saw one other American the entire month I was there. Now you can dine at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Subway, Starbucks and probably many others. There’s a backpacker district with bars lining Bui Vien street and travel agencies strewn across Pham Ngu Lao. There’s a helmet law (not that this is a bad thing) and you can shop at Marc Jacobs, Chanel or the Gap. I feel very nostalgic for the good ole days, but I try to embrace this new Vietnam and see what she has to offer.
After the fine-but-not-great food in Cambodia, I was dying for some quality eats, so I turned to my trusty guide, Anthony Bourdain. He led me to a soup shop in a quiet neighborhood run by the so-called Lunch Lady. Each day she has a different soup on offer, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I pulled up on a Wednesday and she was serving her version of chicken noodle soup. The broth was savory and unctuous with a touch of sweet (word is she puts a whole pineapple in it). Thin yellow noodles swam with two huge pieces of chicken on top. On the side were limes and sliced chilies so you could round out the broth to your liking. Also served were two fresh spring rolls stuffed with rice noodles, shrimp and fresh herbs providing the perfect punch of brightness to my late morning meal. The broth was so good, I slurped the bowl dry. Ahhh, yes, things were off to a good start.
After a few days of delicious meals and a motorbike ride through the Mekong Delta, my dear friend Sheila (who I’ve known since the third day of 7th grade) met me in Saigon. I was SO excited to see her and couldn’t wait to break baguettes together. We ended up doing a seafood tour through Saigon Street Eats and had one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. We ate the equivalent of a full day’s worth of food in a few hours.
Below is a breakdown of what we stuffed ourselves with. Uh, I mean sampled:
Coconut snails: These were TEENY sea snails cooked in a sweet sauce that you eat with a safety pin. They were DELICIOUS!
Conch: This giant mollusk was topped with chopped chilies, then cut up and dunked in a lemony, salty sauce.
Clams: Simply steamed with fragrant lemongrass
Grilled shrimp: On a skewer and delicately charred
Duck tongue: Strange, yet surprisingly delicious. Tongues were cooked in a sweet sauce flavored with Chinese five spice. The consistency is similar to octopus or squid, but slightly more toothsome. The long, thin pieces sticking out are bones! There are two of them connected to each tongue.
Baked mussels: Topped with chilies and roasted over hot coals.
We also ate broiled scallops, boiled blue crabs and a GIANT oyster served with a mountain of wasabi. The oyster is then chased with a bite of raw green onion to cut the burn. Yowza! And then, at the end of the meal when we couldn’t possibly eat any more, a pot of soup was served.
We were stuffed to the gills (sorry, couldn’t resist). Sheila and I explored a few other restaurants while in Saigon, including the incredibly delicious May in an old French colonial building near the river. The wonderful thing about food in Vietnam is that you can get a great meal for $2 or $20, depending on the experience you’re after: plastic chair sidewalk dining or a more refined, upscale meal. At both ends of the spectrum you’ll be presented with delicious eats that won’t break the bank. Fine dining isn’t cheap, but it’s still considerably less than you’d spend for something comparable in the US. And let’s face it, it really wouldn’t be comparable. The balance of flavors and freshness of ingredients in Vietnamese cooking is unrivaled. Ok, the Thais do a pretty good job too. Basically you’d have to really try hard to eat a bad meal in Vietnam.
Coffee is another Vietnamese obsession, as demonstrated by the number of cafes found everywhere. And I don’t mean “a Starbucks on every corner” kind of everywhere. I mean multiple cafes on a single block. You could walk five minutes and pass a dozen. Highlands and Trung Nguyen are popular chains often filled with young Vietnamese pecking away on their mobile devices. Ca phe sua da is the national favorite, which is iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Sheila, who has never liked coffee, couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It’s like dessert in a glass. The coffee is really strong, but mellowed by a sweet layer of condensed milk. Sometimes it’s delivered the traditional way with the coffee filter on top of the glass so you can watch the dark deliciousness drip on top of the milk (not great for the impatient connoisseur, however). Add your ice and voila! Most often, however, it comes fully assembled and all you need to do is drink. Sip that on a hot afternoon and everything else slips away. After drinking tea and dreaded instant Nescafe for months, I was quite happy with my new caffeine option. The Vietnamese prefer to sip their ca phe sua da in the afternoon, however, as mornings are reserved for soup eating. Soup in the morning and coffee in the afternoon- ok, Vietnam, I’ll play by your rules (sometimes).
After eating our weight in food and walking it off by visiting a few museums, Sheila and I flew to Hoi An in Central Vietnam. As with Saigon, it was like a totally new city to me. Unfortunately it had become slightly Disney-a-fied. It was still beautiful with lanterns aglow at night and gorgeous French architecture, it just wasn’t exactly the quaint town I remembered. Currently there’s a huge brouhaha over a new charge levied just to enter the Old Town area, even if you’re just going to shop or eat at a restaurant. Sheila and I managed to avoid paying as the rules were unclear (even to those policing the area), so hopefully it won’t stick. The money contributes to preserving this UNESCO heritage site, but vendors in the area are rightfully unhappy and I think there are better ways of subsidizing maintenance fees.
That aside, it really is a beautiful town and we enjoyed walking down the narrow streets and taking in the architecture. Even though Vietnam is a small country, the cuisine is very regional and we sampled a few local specialties: white rose (small, steamed dumplings) and cao lau, noodles with pork.
After a week spent in Saigon and Hoi An, we were ready to meet up with Sheila’s husband and 15-year old daughter, who flew out to meet us in Hanoi for the 2nd half of the trip. It was such a treat to have our girl’s week together! But of course, more adventure was still to come.