Learning to Love ‘the People’s Food’ in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

By MATT GROSS
(The New York Times)

In the summer of 1996, fresh out of college, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City for one simple reason: I loved Vietnamese food. At restaurants in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, I’d grown fond of the staples of the cuisine — grilled meats, startling herbs, crunchy vegetables — and particularly of pho, the aromatic beef noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish. As graduation approached, I knew I wanted to live overseas, and Communist Vietnam, which had just opened its doors to the West, was the obvious choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at all — it felt like destiny.

But as I quickly discovered, liking a cuisine is not the same as understanding it. My first sense of this disjunction came a couple of weeks into my stay, when I settled in for lunch at a downtown restaurant. The manic energy of the streets — the flood of motorbikes, the clanging construction crews, the gawking tourists — had dissipated in the midday heat. Time to eat, and nap and breathe and think, away from the tropical sun.

This respite is likely the only reason that I happened to notice the man with the gun. He was across the street, standing in the clear sunshine. He was Vietnamese, in his early 40s. He wore sunglasses. And at his side, he held what I assumed was an Uzi. Then he disappeared into a storefront. If the street had been full of 100cc Hondas, as it had been an hour earlier, I would’ve missed him entirely.

It was an odd sight, and I wanted to ask someone — anyone — about it. Was the man a gangster? A cop? Then my food arrived, and I forgot all about him. I hadn’t known what to order, but something on the menu caught my attention: luon nuong mia, freshwater eel wrapped around sugarcane (held in place with a chive bow) and grilled over charcoal. As I bit, I fell in love. The eel was rich and oily, caramelized from the charcoal heat, infused with the tang of garlic and fish sauce and the sweetness of raw cane. And the cane itself, when I gnawed it, released a burst of sugary juice tinged with the meaty slick of the eel.

This, I knew, was what I couldn’t get back home. This was why I’d picked up stakes and moved to Vietnam. The eel was so great that I wanted to turn to my neighbors and tell them that it justified everything.

But I had no neighbors. I was alone in this restaurant — alone and confused. After all, this seemed to be a quality spot; the eel was proof. So where was everyone? What was I doing wrong?

Those first months in Vietnam were full of such confusion. All around me, I was fairly sure, were amazing food experiences waiting to be had, yet I couldn’t figure out what to eat, how to order, and where, and when, and why. At lunch, for example, I’d often order pho at the renowned Pho Hoa Pasteur. But when I told my students in my English classes, they looked confused. To them, pho was breakfast, not a midday meal. I’d protest: Plenty of Vietnamese people were at Pho Hoa Pasteur! My students would backtrack, perhaps wanting not to contradict their teacher, or just to make me feel comfortable. Oh, sure, they’d say, you can eat any food anytime you want. Khong sao — no problem.

But it was a problem. And I knew its roots. At Vietnamese restaurants in America, all kinds of foods are served together — noodles, soups, stir-frys, spring rolls. But in Vietnam, restaurants are often devoted to a single dish: pho, banh xeo (a rice crepe stuffed with pork and bean sprouts), goat hot pot. Adapting to this was hard. Knowing only a small subset of dishes, and only a few words of Vietnamese, I didn’t even know what to commit myself to. I knew that I should just blindly walk in, point to whatever I saw on other tables, and enjoy the result, but fear and shyness kept me at bay. Is there anything more alienating than not knowing how to eat?

Too often I wound up at the non-Vietnamese restaurants in the backpacker and tourist districts. They were often good: excellent Italian fare, thanks in part to fresh tomatoes and basil; a devoted expatriate clientele demanded serious Japanese; and a century of French colonialism meant that pâté, red wine and onion soup were vernacular dishes. But these meals all reminded me of my ongoing failure to penetrate Vietnamese culture.

After a few months, I moved from my sixth-floor rented room to another on the fifth floor. The new room was larger and air-conditioned, but I took it for the simple reason that it had a tiled patio that was ideal for takeout alfresco lunches.

But what to bring home? Ham-and-brie sandwiches? Thai ground pork with holy basil? On a stroll down nearby Bui Vien Street one day, I spotted a man grilling pork chops outside a com binh dan, an institution that translates as “the people’s food.” Com binh dan are everywhere in Vietnam. For less than a dollar, you can have a plate of rice and a serving of, say, pork belly braised in fish sauce and sugar, water spinach (rau muong) stir-fried with garlic, or a soup of bitter melon stuffed with pork and mushrooms

But com binh dan had never appealed to me. Maybe their folding tables, plastic chairs and worn silverware looked too shabby. Maybe the pre-made dishes, sitting in the humid open air, turned me off. Maybe I needed to read a menu. Or maybe I was just afraid. My palate could handle a challenge, my fragile psyche couldn’t.

When I smelled the suon nuong, or pork chops, however, everything changed. Marinated in garlic, sugar, fish sauce and shallots, they gave off an intense aroma of fat and caramelization, one I couldn’t turn away from. So I ordered to-go — suon nuong on a mound of rice, with rau muong and sliced cucumbers — and carried the plastic foam box to my fifth-floor oasis, where I ate in utter bliss.

The com binh dan around the corner quickly became my go-to spot for good, unpretentious food. Usually, I’d get the perfect suon nuong, but the shop also had squid, stuffed with pork and braised until soft, as well as crispy-fried fish. And a fried egg could be added to anything.

Eating on my patio was nice, but more and more I ate at the com binh dan’s flimsy tables, noticing how other customers ate — with chopsticks, with fork and spoon, or with a combination. I studied the way they prepared dipping sauces, either by filling dishes with dark fish sauce and a few shreds of red chiles, or by pouring nuoc cham, a mix of fish sauce, water, lime juice and sugar, from the plastic pitchers placed on each table. (I’d thought it was iced tea — whoops!) People ate without much ceremony. This was good cooking, but it was also a refueling stop. As I watched and copied them, day after day, I didn’t even realize that, for the first time, I was eating like a regular person.

Nor did I realize that mastering this one meal would have collateral effects. Now that I’d locked down lunch, I could eat breakfast and dinner however I wanted. No longer did I have to feel guilty about starting the day with black coffee and fresh croissants; in a few hours, I’d be feasting on pork chops.

I could also experiment at dinner, testing dosas at the new South Indian restaurant, partying with friends in the Siberian Hunting Lodge, or feasting on braised snails and grilled mussels in a converted auto garage near the Saigon River. Whether these meals turned out delicious or dull, authentic or artificial, I knew that the next day I’d be eating a people’s lunch.

There was, however, one casualty of my growing cultural adeptness. Now that I better understood lunch, the restaurant that served sugarcane eel no longer fit into my eating life — by then I knew it was not a lunch spot, and come dinnertime there was so much else to explore. I never returned. The luon nuong mia, so fixed in my memory, seems like a heat-induced hallucination, almost as illusory as the man with the Uzi. Except it was all real, as real as the charcoal smoke that still billows forth from the com binh dan on Bui Vien Street, on a thousand other streets throughout Saigon, and wherever regular folks gather to eat.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/travel/learning-to-love-the-peoples-food-in-ho-chi-minh-city-vietnam.html)

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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

Vietnam unveiled as the fastest growing tourist destination

By Jules

When the Post Office recently revealed their list of the fastest growing currencies in the UK, I was not surprised to see which destination was at number one – Vietnam!

The index is a good indicator of hot tourist destinations for Brits this summer and like us at PureTravel it appears they too love Vietnam holidays! In fact sales of the Vietnamese currency, the dong soared by a massive 68% this summer (June-August). The findings come from the highly respected UK Post Office which has 11,500 local branches across the UK.

In my opinion this should put Vietnam right at the top of the must-see destinations list for some wintersun and into spring 2013. The weather is distinctly autumnal right now in the UK so a long haul trip to Vietnam is ideal and even easier now that direct flights are operating between London Gatwick and Hanoi as we reported last year. And right now 1 GBP equals 33,760 VND which means that with just 29.61 GBP you can be a millionaire in Vietnam!

The rise in popularity is also attributed to the fact that several luxury resorts have also opened up in various locations throughout Vietnam. There is also a new airport planned for the southern Vietnam province of Kien Giang; the Phu Quoc International Airport is on schedule to open late 2012 and will dramatically increase accessibility of the Mekong Delta region. The Vietnamese government has pledged to invest more money on key tourist infrastructures such as leisure and entertainment complexes, even if the addition of tuk-tuks on the city streets of Hanoi has been vetoed.

At a recent meeting, tourism ministers of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar debated the feasibility of creating a ‘unified visa zone’ for the four countries, which would ease red tape for tourists visiting southeast Asia. If the system gets the go ahead its estimated that more than 25 million international travellers will visit the 4 countries, compared to 12 million foreign tourists last year (and 14% more than 2010). Of course once western travellers have made the journey it’s all the more attractive to combine several Southeast Asian countries at the same time. In fact many western tour operators already offer the multi-country trips so this move would be very appealing.

I’ve been lucky enough to have explored Vietnam, spending time in the usual Vietnamese tourist haunts; Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Hanoi and Halong Bay and I absolutely loved my visit! I hope more travellers discover Vietnam for themselves and for some inspiration check out some of the weird and wonderful hotels you could opt for.

Imagine my excitement as well when I caught the BBC Top Gear Special which featured the three famous presenters; Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James |May traversing Vietnam on motorbikes travelling 1,000 miles from Ho Chi Minh City to Halong City. They had just eight days to complete the journey with various challenges along the way but I won’t reveal who won – all I can say is that you definitely need to catch up with the episode either on a cable TV station or via the BBC site. Fantastic viewing and very funny!

And if you’re curious as to which destinations came in positions 2-10, we have published the list; Top 10 Fastest growing holiday destinations revealed.

 

(Source http://www.puretravel.com/blog/2012/09/24/vietnam-unveiled-as-the-fastest-growing-tourist-destination/)

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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