Vietnamese Basic Delights

Vietnamese food is a delicate and fabulous mix of flavours and aromas. The food differs slightly in different parts of the country and of course everywhere boasts its particular specialty. But my main eating experiences have taken place in Ho Chi Minh City which is large enough of course to not only offer lots of South Vietnamese cuisine but also restaurants and shops which cater specifically to other regions.

There are a number of excellent restaurants in Ho Chi Minh which are popular with tourists and expats. However the best Vietnamese food has to be eaten the way the locals do – cheap and quickly. There are also a number of excellent eateries to be found all over the city, from street vendors with wobbly child-sized plastic stools to perch on, to hole-in-the wall restaurants hidden away down dingy alleys to large, outdoor areas with plenty of tables and food stalls. The rule of thumb is that if other people are eating there and the food is freshly prepared and being sold quickly it should be alright.

One of my favourite things about Vietnam, perhaps surprisingly, is the bread. Much of Asia is a large disappointment in the bread department as they dish up loaves of white, sweetened, tasteless fluff which you know will rot your teeth as soon as look at it. However, the French left two lasting impressions on the country – the architecture and bread. French baguettes are available not only in bakeries and coffee shops, but in small mobile sandwich carts which dot city street corners. It used to be my favourite lunch-time repast when I lived and worked there. You have a choice of the ubiquitous sardines (Vietnamese are obsessed with tinned sardines in tomato sauce) or pate (never ask what is in it) or egg. It all comes liberally sprinkled with coriander, and the bread is always fresh, crusty and delicious.

Baguettes for lunchtime definitely, but my morning routine always included a bowl of pho on my way to work. It did take a few months for me to get used to slurping noodle soup early in the morning, but once I did, I never looked back. Pho is a hearty and aromatic soup with noodles and either beef or chicken. It also includes lots of spices and herbs, and there are usually plates of unidentifiable green leaves and shoots on the table to pop in for even more zest and flavour. You eat the noodles with chopsticks and drink the liquid with a spoon, usually alternating between the two, but always ending up with dribbles of brown glop down your chin and freshly ironed shirt. Often the chicken and beef is put in to the soup more or less uncooked, and you need to swirl it around in the boiling broth for five minutes before diving in.

The banh xeo is also a fantastic culinary experience. It is a savoury pancake made from rice flour, turmeric and water and then stuffed with bean sprouts and shrimp and pork. It is pan fried which makes it quite crispy on the outside, and any niggling doubts about how healthy it is disappear when you see it comes wrapped in lots of green mustard leaves. Suddenly it appears to be a veritable health food feast. The best place to try these pancakes is on Dinh Cong Trang Street where there is a very popular outdoor eating area. The food is incredibly cheap here and extremely good. It is all freshly made right in front of you and the only thing to be careful of is trying not to burn your tongue.

I could go on and describe even more delicious Vietnamese fare, or digress and mention the interesting snacks available on street stalls in the form of small fried birds, cockroaches and numerous intestinal parts. But that really is another story.