36 hours on Vietnam’s Reunification Express

“Why don’t you fly?” asks a friend when I tell her I’m heading to Saigon. “The train’s so slow.” She’s right. Vietnamese trains are slow. Very. Slow. But like many things in Vietnam, this train’s not about the getting there, but the journey. All 36 hours of it. The route, from Hanoi to Saigon, is commonly referred to as the Reunification Express. This year marks 75 years of service, and although no longer a single train, the name has stuck. Train travel used to be the most popular way for tourists to get around the country, but with the rise in domestic budget airlines, fewer ride the rails these days. The line was originally built by French colonists in 1936 and covers 1,726 kilometers of track. Repeatedly bombed during the war with the United States, the service didn’t start running properly again until 1976 when the Geneva Accords were signed, and divisions between North and South were resolved.

Leaving the city

A guard checks the tickets of passengers arriving in Saigon, the end of the line for Vietnam’s Reunification express trains.

We pull out of Hanoi on a rainy afternoon and start the journey south. The first part of the journey heads past the suburbs of the capital, and runs so closely to the highway that it seems the motorbikes and cars are literally at the window. Rail crossings every 10 minutes start to dwindle as the train reaches Ninh Binh, the first major stop on the line, and the capital of Vietnam during the 10th century. The landscape is surreal. Huge rocks climb out of rice fields as farmers work knee-deep in the paddies and the train slowly rolls by, cutting a line through the greenery. We continue south through the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, the official line of separation until reunification, crossing the Ben Hai River, entering what was once the south of Vietnam. The sun sets and I head to my sleeper compartment for the night. I’m traveling “hard sleeper” class, a compartment with six beds, and sharing with a young couple and some elderly women. After a little conversation amongst themselves, they offer me some of their noodles. I decline, proudly pulling a sandwich out of my bag. The old ladies turn up their noses. “No good,” says the grandson. “No muscles eating only bread.”

Hard day’s night

A tourist buys tickets at Hanoi’s main train station. The price of a hard sleeper from Hanoi to Saigon is around US$70, with journey times depending on the service.

The hard sleeper class does at least allow for some rest, despite the snores of my fellow passengers. Others are not so privileged. A couple of students heading south to start their university year are traveling from Thanh Hoa to Saigon, around 1,550 kilometers, all the way in “hard seat” class. “The service is OK” says Bui, 26, who’s training to be a priest. “It’s normal for me to travel like this. The scenery is beautiful but the food on the train is a bit expensive and this morning I have a backache.” Looking at the wooden slatted bench he spent the night on, I can see why.  His companion, Quy, 18, is a lot more enthusiastic. This is the furthest she’s ever traveled by train and is enjoying the ride. “I’ve never traveled more than an hour by train,” she says. Her only complaint is the lack of tourists in her carriage. “Foreigners prefer the plane because it’s much quicker, and cleaner, but it’s a shame they don’t use the train more. I’d love to meet them and chat with them on the journey.”

Window on beauty

Staff serve food on the SE3 train from Hanoi to Saigon. Twelve trains run daily between the country’s two main cities.

The route between Hue and Danang, known as the Hai Van, or Ocean Cloud Pass, is famed for its beauty. Passing through tunnels carved in the mountainside hugging the coastline, every passenger is stuck to the windows enjoying the view. At Danang the platform is crammed with hawkers, food stalls and touts from tour companies looking to get visitors to their hotels in nearby Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most popular backpacker hangouts. The World Heritage-listed town, only a short bus ride from the station, is packed with visitors year round. The station has a few tourists waiting for trains; today most are running a few hours late.  Erin, 26, from California, is on a two-week holiday with a couple of friends, and they’re trying to see as much of the country as possible. “It’s so expensive to travel by train in the States so we don’t get the chance to do it very often,” she says.

Final stop

After a second night in the carriage, we wake up around 100 kilometers from Saigon. The rice fields continue outside the window but as we get closer to the city the outskirts come into view, and entering Bien Hoa the signs of city life become more evident. Shops and repair shacks line the highway; you can see people eating breakfast and hanging out their washing. Some even take the chance to wave, probably something of a morning ritual to accompany their coffee.  Finally we step out into the sunshine on the platform in Saigon. Compared to the slow train, its old carriages and mucky toilets, the city feels fresh and spacious. But those are just the details. Traveling by train in Vietnam forces you to mix with the people, share their journey, eat their food and hold their children, experiences fewer tourists have in this age of high speed air travel. Getting there Six trains run daily in either direction, with journey times varying between 30 and 39 hours depending on the service. Tickets cost around US$70 for the entire journey in hard sleeper class, with prices rising for soft sleeper air conditioned cabins. Main stops along the route include Ninh Binh, Vinh, Danang, Qung Nai, Nha Trang and Bien Hoa.

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

40 delicious Vietnamese dishes (by CNN)

By Helen Clark and Karryn Miller

Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t win any points for complexity. Many of the most popular dishes can be made just as well on the side of the road as in a top-end restaurant.

But it’s precisely this simplicity, the subtle variations by region and the fresh ingredients that keep us pulling up a plastic stool for more.

pho noodle soup1. Cheap can be tasty too.

1. Pho

What list of Vietnamese cuisine would be complete without pho? It’s almost impossible to walk a block in Vietnam’s major cities without bumping into a crowd of hungry patrons slurping noodles at a makeshift pho stand.

This simple staple consisting of a salty broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef, features predominately in the local diet — and understandably so. It’s cheap, tasty, and widely available at all hours.

Just look out for a mass of people on plastic stools — or try a tried and tested favorite: Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc, Hai BaTrung District, Hanoi; +84 43 821 2709

2. Cha ca

Cha ca
A food so good they named a street after it

Hanoians consider cha ca to be so exceptional that there is a street in the capital dedicated to these fried morsels of fish.

This namesake alley is home to Cha Ca La Vong, which serves sizzling chunks of fish seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric and dill on a hot pan tableside.

Cha Ca La Vong may be the busiest but the service is a bit gruff and the food overpriced. Instead make your way toDuong Than in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, where you’ll find plenty of more affordable but just as tasty options

3. Banh xeo

Banh xeo

A crepe you won’t forget.

A good banh xeo is a crispy crepe bulging with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, plus the garnish of fresh herbs that are characteristic of most authentic Vietnamese dishes.

To enjoy one like a local, cut it into manageable slices, roll it up in rice paper or lettuce leaves and dunk it in whatever special sauce the chef has mixed up for you.

Banh Xeo 46A has mixed reviews but judging by the crowds that swarm there each night they must be doing something right. Banh Xeo, 46A Dinh Cong Trang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

4. Cao lau

Cau lao

Soft, crunchy, sweet, spicy — a bowl of contrasts

This pork noodle dish from Hoi An is a bit like the various cultures that visited the trading port at its prime. The thicker noodles are similar to Japanese udon, the crispy won-ton crackers and pork are a Chinese touch, while the broth and herbs are clearly Vietnamese.

Authentic cau lao is made only with water drawn from the local Ba Le well.

Try Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; +84 510 224 1555

5. Rau muong

Some might call it river weed — with good reason — but that doesn’t stop the masses from scarfing down platefuls of morning glory, usually stir-fried and seasoned with slithers of potent garlic.

Rau muong is common at Vietnamese restaurants and beer gardens.

Chung Den Bia Hoi, 18B Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

6. Nem ran/cha gio

Nem Ran/Cha Gio
A spring roll that jumps out.

Vietnam’s bite-sized crunchy spring rolls might not enjoy the same popularity as their healthier fresh equivalent, but they deserve a special mention.

The crispy shell with a soft veggie and meat filling dunked in a tangy sauce gets the gastronomic juices flowing before a main course. In the north these parcels go by the name nem ran while southerners call them cha gio.

1 Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

7. Goi cuon

Goi Cuon

Roll, dunk, bite, repeat.

These light and healthy fresh spring rolls are a wholesome choice when you’ve been indulging in too much of the fried food in Vietnam.

The translucent parcels are first packed with salad greens, a slither of meat or seafood and a layer of coriander, before being neatly rolled and dunked in Vietnam’s favorite condiment — fish sauce.

Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 43 942 8162

8. Bun bo Hue

Central Vietnam’s take on noodles caters to carnivores with its meaty broth and piles of beef and pork. The thick slippery rice noodles also make for a heartier meal than noodles found in the north and south.

You don’t have to go to Hue to enjoy this dish; if in Ho Chi Minh City try Tib Express, 162 NguyenDinh Chieu, District 3, HCMC; +84 8 3822 5038

9. Banh khot

This dainty variation of a Vietnamese pancake has all the same tasty ingredients but is a fraction of the size. Each banh knot can be scoffed in one ambitious but satisfying mouthful.

The crunchy outside is made using coconut milk and the filling usually consists of shrimp, mung beans, and spring onions with a dusting of dried shrimp flakes on top.

Co Ba Vung Tau, 59B Cao Thang, District 3, HCMC

10. Ga tan

Got the sniffles? Opt for ga tan, a broth that’s Vietnam’s answer to the proverbial cup of chicken noodle soup. Sure it’s not quite how your mother used to make it, with its greenish tinge from the herbs and hunks of chicken parts, but it’s worth a try if you’re needing a Vietnamese tonic.

Try this at one of the street stalls on Hanoi’s Tong Duy Tan aka Pho Am Thuc, or “Food Street”),Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

11. Nom hoa chuoi

Nom hoa chuoi

Yes, bananas have flowers, and they taste great.

Vietnam’s banana flower salad packs a much bigger punch than a typical plate of mixed greens.

Banana flowers (thick purple lumps that will later turn into bunches of bananas) are peeled and thinly sliced then mixed with green papaya, carrots, and cilantro along with chicken and a heavy-handed pour of a salty fish sauce dressing and crunchy peanuts.

Highway 4 restaurant, 3 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 4 3926 4200

12. Bun bo nam bo

Bun bo nam bo

Dry, but not dreary

This bowl of noodles comes sans broth, keeping the ingredients from becoming sodden and the various textures intact. The tender slices of beef mingle with crunchy peanuts and bean sprouts, and are flavored with fresh herbs, crisp dried shallots, and a splash of fish sauce and fiery chili pepper.

67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

13. Hoa qua dam

This chunky blend of fresh tropical fruit in a cup is the perfect local treat when the heat of Vietnamese summer starts to wear you down. It could be considered a healthy alternative to ice cream — if you stick to the shaved ice variation — but for the full experience it’s best had with diabetes-inducing condensed milk mixed in.

15B To Tich, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

14. Phocuon

Pho Cuon

Don’t let the sea-slug appearance put you off.

Pho cuonpackages the flavors of phoand goi cuon in one neat little parcel. This Hanoi take on fresh spring rolls uses sheets of uncutpho noodles to encase fried beef, herbs and lettuce or cucumber.

The best place to find them is on Ngu Xa island on the capital’s Truc Bach Lake — specifically at 26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi

15. Ga nuong

KFC may be everywhere in Vietnam these days, but skip the fast food for the local version. Honey marinated then grilled over large flaming barbecues, the chicken legs, wings and feet served are unusually tender, while the skin stays crispy but not dry.

Viet Ha on Ly Van Phuc, Dong Da district, Hanoi

16. Pho xao

Pho xao may just be a slightly healthier take on my xao — but the beauty is in the details. The flat, smoother phonoodle doesn’t crisp up like its pre-boiled instant cousin.

When done well the outer edges acquire a browned crunchiness, whilst the center stays soft and glutinous. This dish tastes best with a fried egg and seasoned with chili or soy sauce.

26 Nguyen Khac Hieu, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

17. Ca phe trung

Ca phe trung

Egg coffee? Kind of like a glass of breakfast.

Vietnamese “egg coffee” is technically a drink but we prefer to put it in the dessert category. The creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam perched on the dense Vietnamese coffee will have even those who don’t normally crave a cup of joe licking their spoons with delight.

In Hanoi, follow the tiny alley between the kitschy souvenir shops at 11 Hang Gai into the clearing, and up several flights of increasingly dicey stairs to pair your ca phe trung with an unbeatable view of Hoan KiemLake.

18. Bo la lot

Vietnamese are masters of wrapping their food. Bo la lot is neither raw nor deep-fried, but flamed on an open grill to soften the exterior and infuse the betel leaf’s peppery aroma into the ground beef inside.

3T Quan Nuong, 29-31 Ton That Thiep, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3821 1631

19. Xoi

Xoi
Rice that sticks … in the memory.

Savory sticky rice is less of an accompaniment to meals in Vietnam, more a meal itself. The glutinous staple comes with any number of mix-ins (from slithers of chicken, or pork to fried or preserved eggs), but almost always with a scattering of dried shallots on top.

Xoi Yen, Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

20. Banh cuon

These rolled up rice flour pancakes are best when served piping hot, still soft and delicate. Although seemingly slender and empty they have a savory filling of minced pork and mushrooms.

Zest is also added by dunking the slippery parcels in a fishy dipping sauce.

Corner of Cong Quynh and Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, HCMC

21. Ca tim kho to

Ca tim kho to

The humble egg plant comes good

Eggplant alone tends not to get us excited. Although when it’s diced and sautéed in a clay pot along with tomatoes, soy sauce, sugar, and (depending on the recipe) minced meat, the once bland vegetable redeems itself.

Pineapple Restaurant, 35 Hang Buom, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; + 84 43 935 2316

22. Bot chien

Saigon’s favorite streetside snack, bot chien, is popular with both the afterschool and the after-midnight crowd. Chunks of rice flour dough are fried in a large wok until crispy and then an egg is broken into the mix.

Once cooked it’s served with slices of papaya, shallots and green onions, before more flavor is added with pickled chili sauce and rice vinegar.

Nighttime food vendors sell this at the corners of PhamNgu Lao and Cong Quynh, District 1, HCMC

23. Bun dau mam tom

Bun dau mam tom

Sometimes it’s the sauce that makes the meal.

This plain-looking tofu and noodle dish is served with mam tom sauce — the Vegemite of Vietnam. The pungent purple dipping sauce is used to flavor the slabs of deep-fried fofu that are at the core of the meal.

Corner of Hang Be and Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi

24. Banh goi

These pockets of deep-fried goodness are often described as the equivalent of a Cornish pastry or as a Vietnamese samosa, depending on the nationality of the person explaining.

Inside the crispy exterior you’ll find that it’s similar to neither description, with its filling of finely minced pork, mushrooms and vermicelli noodles.

52 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi; +84 4 3828 5922

25. Com suon nuong

This simple meal is the Saigonese equivalent of bun cha — with rice in place of noodles. A tender pork cutlet is barbecued over hot coals to give it a rich, smoky flavor, and laid over the fluffy white com.

Com Tam Cali has a number of branches across HCMC. Try Tam Cali 1 at 32 Nguyen Trai, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3925 2222

26. Chao

Chao

Just looking at this rice porridge dish will ease your stomach pains.

With its thick and creamy texture Vietnam’s rice porridge is the best pick when your queasy stomach can’t handle much else. If you want to jazz it up you can always add slices of chicken, fish, beef, duck or pork ribs, along with a sprinkling of herbs and shallots.

Chao Ca specializes in fish chao, 213 Hang Bong, HoanKiem district, Hanoi; +84 43 829 5281

27. Bo luc lac

Cubes of beef are tossed around a steaming wok with garlic, pepper, and some vegetables to make shaking beef. There’s nothing special about the beef that makes it shaking.

The name is just a literal translation that refers to the process of mixing the beef around while cooking.

Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3827 7131

28. Hat de nong

The smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire can bring back fond memories of Christmas carols — until a moped transporting a giant blow-up Santa whizzes by. Pick the street vendor with the most enticing smell.

To Tich, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

29. Banh uot thit nuong

Banh uot thit nuong

Anything served on a stick can’t fail.

It’s all about the marinade when it comes to the grilled pork in fresh rice paper rolls that are popular in central Vietnam.

The typical mixture coats the meat in a blend of sugar, salt, chili, lemongrass and fish sauce. Cilantro, basil and mint are added when it’s served up to add some green to the appetizer.

Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; +84 510 224 1555

30. Bun cha

Bun cha

Hanoi’s lunch-crowd favorite.

Pho might be Vietnam’s most famous dish but bun cha is the top choice when it comes to lunchtime in the capital.

Just look for the clouds of meaty smoke after 11 a.m. when street-side restaurants start grilling up small patties of seasoned pork and slices of marinated pork belly over a charcoal fire. Once they’re charred and crispy the morsels are served with a large bowl of a fish sauce-heavy broth, a basket of herbs and a helping of rice noodles.

Hanoi’s most famous bun cha outlet is 1 Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

31. Banh mi

Banh mi
The baguette, upgraded and improved.

The French may have brought with them the baguette, but Vietnam takes it to a different level. How exactly depends on what end of the country you’re in.

In the north chefs stick to the basic elements of carbohydrate, fat and protein—bread, margarine and pâté—but head south and your banh mi may contain a more colorful combination of cheese, cold cuts, pickled vegetables, sausage, fried egg, fresh cilantro and chili sauce.

One of the better baguette vendors in Saigon sets up shop beside the Cherry mini-mart on DoQuang Dao, District 1, HCMC

32. Lau

Eating this hodgepodge hotpot dish is a communal affair with everyone digging in to the oversized boiling pot. We’ve found that just about anything can (and will) go into this soup from tofu to frogs.

It’s best to stick to one main protein rather than opting for the mix of meat, poultry and seafood together.

On the northern edge of Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake you’ll find a number of restaurant staff crossing the street to deliver lau to lake-side diners

33. Banh bao

Steamed pork buns aren’t traditionally Vietnamese but thatdoesn’t stop the spongy rolls from being sold by street vendors and in traditional Vietnamese restaurants.

The best buns have a hard boiled quail egg buried within the minced meat, while the cheaper ones come without any filling at all. Remember the lower the price the less stuffing, so you might not be getting the good deal you thought you were.

Often sold by wandering vendors patrolling Hanoi’s Old Quarter at all hours. In the south try Banh Bao Tho Phat, 78 Nguyen Tri Phuong, District 5, HCMC

34. Com rang

Fried rice may not be the most adventurous option, but sometimes you just want some familiar grub done right. Baby sized chunks of meat and colorful vegetables are mixed with soy and fish sauce in a wok streetside to create a rice dish that is still moist but slightly smoky.

Make it Vietnamese by supplementing with Bia Hanoi.

Try one of the vendors on Tong Duy Tan (aka “Food Street”), Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi

35. Bo bit tet

Vietnam’s equivalent to steak and eggs fills the void when you’re hankering for some greasy pub tucker. The thin flank steak is usually served with eggs, thick potato wedges, and Vietnamese meatballs on a sizzling cast iron plate.

Le Hong, 489/29/18 Huynh Van Banh, District 3, HCMC

36. Com chay

Com chay

Veggie food for meat lovers.

Com chay refers to two things in Vietnam: vegetarian food, or Vietnam’s homemade rice crispies that are popular with children. Unlike the sweet treats in the United States, Vietnam’s version of a crispy comes with meat instead of marshmallows.

Vietnam’s vegetarian restaurants use mock meats to create all the traditional dishes and usually do a pretty good job. Although some places include artificial creations we would rather not try. Fake rubbery snails anyone?

Try Hoa Dang vegetarian restaurant, 38 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3820 9702

37. Che

This dessert can be served in either a bowl or a glass. The latter is the more enticing option with the visible layers of bean jelly, coconut milk, fruit, and ice.

Best had when you’re craving something sweet on a scorching day in Saigon.

Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur, District 1, HCMC; +84 8 3827 7131

38. My xao bo

My xao bo
World’s best “instant” food.

Mix noodles with a dollop of oil, then add beef, onions, garlic, morning glory and some tomato for color and you have a platter of my xao bo. The whole dish takes about as long to make as instant noodles — but oh so much more flavor.

Any bia hoi establishment serves this dish, but the eateries on Tang Bat Ho, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, have perfected it

39. Dau phu sot ca chua

Dau phu sot ca chua
Tofu + tomato sauce, but greater than the sum of its parts.

The English translation of “tofu in tomato sauce” doesn’t really do this dish justice. The slabs of deep-fried soy are doused in a rich fresh tomato and spring onion coating, and seasoned with a speckle of fresh herbs.

Chim Sao at 65 Ngo Hue, Hai Ba Trung district, Hanoi; +84 43 976 0633

40. Canh bun

Canh bun
Got crabs? Cook ’em up and devour.

Another hearty soup that’s high on the lunchtime agenda, this is a crab and morning glory noodle soup. Canh bun is similar to the more well-known bun rieu crab soup, but has a small handful of variations — including the type of noodle used.

Look for street food vendors with Canh Bun on handwritten signs surrounded by lunchtime crowds, or visit Bun Saigon at 73 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

 

Vietnamese noodles: a cultural pho-nomenon

HANOI, Vietnam – In Hanoi, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best pho noodle soup is found in the grimiest restaurants, where the staff are rude, the queues long, and the surroundings spartan at best.

Pho, a simple soup of beef broth, herbs, spices and rice noodles, emerged some 100 years ago in north Vietnam and has since acquired a global following, beloved by French celebrity chefs and cash-strapped American students alike.

But in Vietnam eating pho is akin to a religious ritual — as the late writer Nguyen Tuan said — and the humble dish, which can be found on every street corner in the capital Hanoi, is integral to people’s daily lives.

“I have been eating here for more than 20 years,” Tran Van Hung told AFP as he stood shivering in Hanoi’s damp winter chill in the queue at the Pho Thin restaurant.

“The staff here is always rude to me. I’m used to it. I don’t care,” the 39-year-old said, adding that he was raised on the noodles from the unassuming yet renowned establishment on Hanoi’s Lo Duc street.

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Pho is a Vietnamese staple. While traditionally a breakfast food, it is now served at all times of day and eaten regularly by rich and poor alike, usually at the same establishments, where it costs around a dollar a bowl.

“Pho is purely Vietnamese, the most unique, distinctive dish in our cuisine,” said chef Pham Anh Tuyet.

The noodles must be handmade, the perfect size and no more than four hours old; the ginger must be chargrilled; the broth of beef bones and oriental spices must have bubbled gently for at least eight hours over coals, she said.

“The fragrant perfume of the pho is part of the beauty of the dish,” Tuyet, who is famed for her mastery of traditional cooking, told AFP.

“No other country can make anything like pho — one of the secrets is the broth, the clear, aromatic broth,” she told AFP at her tiny restaurant, tucked away on the top floor of a wood-fronted house in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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Controversy obscures origins

The exact origins of pho are obscure and highly controversial in Vietnam.

It is traditionally made with beef broth, but chicken has also been used since the 1940s when the Japanese occupation resulted in a scarcity of beef.

Beef was not common in Vietnamese cooking at the turn of the century — cattle were valuable working beasts — but with the arrival of the steak-eating French colonialists, bones and other scraps became available for the soup pot.

Some experts, such as Didier Corlou, the former head chef at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel who has expounded pho’s virtues to international gourmands for decades, argue the dish is “Vietnamese with French influence”.

“The name ‘pho’ could have come from ‘pot au feu’ — the French dish,” Corlou told AFP, pointing out similarities between the dishes, including the grilled onion in the French dish and the grilled shallot in pho.

Another theory, Corlou said, is that as pho was first sold by roving hawkers carrying a pot and an earthenware stove — a “coffre-feu” in French — the name comes from the shouts of “feu?” “feu!” to establish if noodles were available.

Yet another argument suggests pho originated from a talented cook in Nam Dinh city — once Vietnam’s largest colonial textile centre, where both French and Vietnamese workers toiled — who thought up a soup to please both nationalities.

Many Vietnamese strongly deny any French influence on their national dish, arguing it pre-dates the colonial period and is uniquely northern Vietnamese.

But whatever the real story, “pho is one of the world’s best soups,” Corlou said. “For me Vietnamese cuisine is the best in the world.”

pho_chin

Pho au fois gras?

Corlou said that while the main ingredients of pho stay constant, the dish must evolve.

At his three Hanoi restaurants, for example, he offers a salmon pho as well as a pho au fois gras priced at $10 a bowl — “you cannot put pho in a museum,” he said.

In the last decade, new local versions of that classic — including fresh rolls made from unsliced pho rice noodle sheets — have also emerged.

And as Vietnam has grown richer, more expensive pho — including a reported $40 kobe beef version — has appeared.

But beyond adding more meat, there is not much you can do to improve the dish, said Hanoi-based chef and cuisine expert Tracey Lister, who thinks the Vietnamese deserve the credit for their acclaimed noodle soup.

“It is the great dish, the celebrated dish, and I think we’ve got to let Vietnam have that one,” Lister, the director of the Hanoi Cooking Center, said.

“Pho truly represents Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a simple dish yet sophisticated. It is a very elegant dish. It’s just a classic.”

 

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hotline: (+84) 972004080
Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com

Home for Hanoi’s destitute: The reality of Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien Bridge, celebrated in Vietnam as a symbol of military resilience, is now a haven for the poor

By Jame Durston (CNN TRAVEL)

Drug users, orphaned children and destitute families.

The reality of life under Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge today is a world away from its image as a symbol of Vietnamese military ingenuity and resilience. The 107-year-old bridge is celebrated as one of Vietnam’s greatest ‘triumphs’ against Western imperialism, and has even inspired songwriters and poets. Guidebooks describe how the Vietnamese managed to keep the bridge open and functioning — a key supply route from the port of Haiphong into Hanoi during the Vietnam War — despite the assault by U.S. bombers. But as I discover during a film shoot for CNNGo TV, looking at this bridge through history’s glorifying lens is to take a one-dimensional view.

long bien bridge coal worker
At one point I clamber up a riverbank made entirely of trash and emerge through a pungent cloud of smoke onto a hill of coal. A soot-smeared woman is hacking up chunks of coal with a mallet; nearby a huge pile of black sludge sends out a horrific stench.   sludge at long bien bridgeDecrepit corrugated tin huts acting as homes are crammed together on one side, like a mini shanty town. This, I now know, is the modern Long Bien Bridge, a home for some of Hanoi’s most disadvantaged people.   home under long bien bridge
Heroin users are known to congregate on Bai Giua (middle island) under the bridge at dusk to indulge their habit. Orphaned children have turned to Bai Giua for shelter, and the poorest of Hanoi’s families, some of whom are forced to live on the river in floating huts, also can be seen around the bridge, pushed to the edge of the city by its burgeoning economic bubble.   paintshop long bien bridge
It is an aspect of modern life in Hanoi that jars with the bridge’s appearance — all girders and bolts and rivets — of might and solidity.   long bien bridge Like a wizened grandfather who can’t stop telling tales of his war-time endeavors, the bridge’s scarred and patched-up appearance seems to say, “Been there, done it, survived it.”   hanoi's long bien bridge
No doubt the events that surrounded this bridge during the 1960s and 1970s were tremendous, and it serves an important purpose as a living memorial to the people that were involved. But for the folk living there now it is simply a makeshift home they have been forced to occupy as the rest of Hanoi moves on.

 Getting there

The bridge is not open to car traffic, so hire a scooter taxi to drive you across the bridge, or take a taxi to Dike Road, near Gam Cau Street, where you’ll find the approach ramp.

The 5 best things I ate in Vietnam

By Expat Edna

I loved Vietnam. Plain and simple. We won’t be having a long, fancy introduction today; let’s just say that on the great travelers’ debate of Vietnam is awesome vs. I’m never visiting again, I am firmly on the side of the former.

And food has a lot to do with it.

I mean, Mike and I even got fleeced out of a ridiculous amount of money by two wily cyclo drivers — and we still harbor no ill will towards the country, and can’t wait to one day return to explore more of its coastline and highlands.

Such is the power of Vietnamese food: a cuisine that’s fresh, light, and easily enjoyed on stools or with a bottle of bia (or both).

Behold, the 5 best things I ate in Vietnam:

1. Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Ca phe sua da)

If Rumpelstiltskin ever came to me and asked for my firstborn child in return for the magical ability to make a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee appear whenever I want, I might actually take that deal. That’s how much I love ca phe sua da. I don’t know if it’s the Vietnamese drip, or the sweet condensed milk; but whatever it is, they’ve got me hooked. This is my crack.

2. Breakfast Pho

When I lived in Shanghai, a group of my friends would go out on these “pho-missions” to search for the best pho in the city, inevitably hitting up shops with names like “Pho Real” and “Pho Ever.” I never understood the craze — until I got to Vietnam. The bowls at Pho 24 in Saigon was amazing enough, but then we go to Hanoi — and I fell in love with pho for breakfast. For the equivalent of a dollar, we got to sit on toddler-sized stools and eat the freshest noodles in a delicately spicy clear broth, with accoutrements of lime, chili, cilantro, and mint. Don’t question me on this — pho for breakfast.

3. Bun Bo

Bun bo is a cold dish featuring rice vermicelli mixed with lettuce, herbs, beef and bean shoots, and sautéed with garlic. Crushed nuts, dried shallots, and thinly sliced pickled papaya and carrot go on top, and a sweet, warm sauce (fish sauce, perhaps) is added last. I’ve tried several variations of this in Paris, and while it’s easy enough to season the beef and mix the other toppings, I think the key is getting the vermicelli right. I love this dish so much, I never got a proper photo of it in Vietnam because I was too eager to dig in. However, mixed together, it looks like this:

4. Spring Rolls

I can’t tell you the difference between spring rolls and summer rolls and nem and banh cuon and all the other variations in Vietnamese cuisine. But I believe my favorites are the ones known as spring rolls, which are crispy and fried, and usually filled with light meats and vegetables like shrimp and wood ear mushrooms (shown in the foreground of the photo). Not that it’s a big deal — regardless of texture or season name, you can’t go wrong with a Vietnamese roll.

5. Seafood

Once again, I cannot tell you the names of what we ate (I’ll never make it in food writing. I’m like the anti-Bourdain). During a Vespa tour we took in Saigon, we rode up to this outdoor seafood restaurant and our guide ordered a few things from this lovely lady. Next thing you know we’re sitting pretty with chilli-rubbed crab, a spicy lemongrass and clam stew, and barbecued clams on the half-shell with peanuts and cilantro. I never would have expected it, but some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, has been in Vietnam.

 

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Hanoi Youth Hostel – No.5 Luong Ngoc Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hotline: (+84) 972004080

Email: kellyyouthhostel@gmail.com