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Published: July 24th 2009
Vietnam, one spring roll at a time!
We are tasting the spring rolls on every stop we make from Saigon to Hanoi! They are often served with a stick of lemongrass to use as a handle and they always come with a peanut, vinegar, or other sauce for dipping. We prefer "fresh" spring rolls but they also come fried.
As many of you know, Joe and I are genuine foodies. Our love of travel has as much to do with all the wonderful food we get to sample as it does with seeing the world and learning about people in different cultures. Vietnam has not disappointed us in our quest to “eat our way around the world.” All of the food here has been exceptional - everything from the gently flavored Vietnamese tea (tra) and the country's bold coffee (ca phe) to the freshest of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, tofu, chicken, and beef. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Vietnam has the most exquisite spring rolls we've ever tasted. So, we thought you might like to hear a little more about the food we’ve been eating and the fun we’ve been having doing it.
It’s hard to know exactly where to start when describing Vietnamese fare, so I’ll plunge in at the sea - the source of some of the freshest, most delightful seafood we’ve ever tasted. We’ve consumed buckets of squid (grilled, stuffed, fried - you name it and they’ll cook it!), shrimp/prawns, tuna, grouper, and other unidentified whole fish. My personal favorite
Fresh grilled squid
Joe enjoys fresh grilled squid with sauteed spinach and steamed rice - Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
has been “seafood hot pot.” This is a do-it-yourself seafood medley that you cook right at your table using a portable, paraffin-fired cooker. Once the broth inside the pot comes to a boil, you throw in the accompanying greens, seafood, and noodles (in that order) and wait for everything to cook up. I love it, but it is usually prepared as a dish for two and Joe rarely agrees to order it with me. He thinks it’s unnatural to sweat profusely at dinner while eating boiling hot soup in 100 degree weather. Go figure!
Another one of our favorites is seafood barbeque, which is popular way to cook fish in Vietnam. One of the best meals we’ve had so far was a barbeque of grilled fish, scallops, and okra that was served with sautéed spinach and steamed rice. Unfortunately, we enjoyed it under rather uncomfortable circumstances at a popular resort/restaurant at Bai Sao beach on Phu Quoc Island. We were the only westerners at the resort and we could tell that everyone was discretely staring at us but not a single person made eye contact or smiled. For reasons that are still not entirely clear to us, everyone
Seafood hot pot !
Seafood hot pot is fantastic, but it can be a little dangerous on a windy beach! Our waitress on Phu Quoc Island had to take our hot pot back to the kitchen so it didnt set the restaurant ablaze!
quickly averted their gaze when our eyes met. We were led to a table on the beach but waited about 30 minutes before anyone came over to take our order. We thought the staff might be waiting to see if we left, but we stayed and eventually ordered a feast of grilled fish. Shortly thereafter, a cook brought over a hibachi and a chair and grilled our entire meal tableside. It was fabulous! After a few jokes and the use of our limited Vietnamese vocabulary, our waiter and personal griller warmed up to us, but only ever so slightly. It was a great meal and we loved every morsel, but we still high-tailed it out of there as soon as we were finished!
If it’s even possible for something to be more delicious than the seafood in Vietnam, it is the absolutely first-rate vegetables and fruits. I would estimate that about 80% of our meals are vegetarian. The vegetarian food (“com chay”) in Vietnam is outstanding, widely accessible, and extremely inexpensive. In keeping with Buddhist teachings, many restaurants have vegetarian-only menus on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out the lunar months
Tuna steaks on the beach!
In Phu Quoc, we ate whatever was the catch-of-the-day.
yet, so we haven’t been able to partake of this tradition. However, basic fried tofu is a staple in most restaurants and street stalls, and Vietnamese chefs make a lot of innovative “mock meat” dishes from soy. In addition to tofu, we have eaten boatloads of spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, cauliflower, bok choy, and cucumber. And, the mushrooms are divine - perhaps our favorite. The fruit here is equally tasty and we’ve tried lots of unique tropical gems like rambutans (a type of lychee fruit), dragon fruit, passion fruit, and jackfruit. Jackfruit is very strange - it has such an intensely putrid smell that we never wanted to try it. However, when we were offered a plate of jackfruit at someone’s home, we found that it tasted wonderful! Pineapple, watermelon, mango, papaya, and bananas are also plentiful in Vietnam and extremely flavorful. When we were in Dalat, we were treated to a royal feast of fruit (and avocados) each morning at the communal breakfast table prepared by our hotel.
Fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and rice (and pretty much everything else you might ever want) sell in open-air markets throughout Vietnam. The markets are like colorful canvasses
Seafood barbeque on Bai Sao beach
Fresh fish and scallops barbequed right at our table and served with grilled okra, sauteed spinach, and steamed rice.
painted with red tomatoes, green cucumbers, orange carrots and purple eggplants. We are still a little intimidated to shop in the outdoor markets because we don’t know the prices and westerners are often (always?) targets of wild overcharging. However, we are gradually getting our feet wet and sharpening our negotiation skills with each transaction. Each time we go to the market, it builds our confidence and gets easier. Sometimes, I purposely suggest an extra low price for something and get into a little “stand off” with a vendor - just for the sport of it! Other times, we just buy stuff in the grocery stores (when we find them) and avoid the bargaining scene altogether.
One visit to any street market is enough to see why we like the Vietnamese diet so much - it is almost exclusively based on whole foods. We’ve had very few processed foods since we’ve been in Vietnam (although Oreo cookies, Pringles potato chips, Ritz crackers, and the ever-alluring Choco-Pies are widely available if you want them). In addition, the farm animals - chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and other livestock - roam freely around the countryside rather than live in overcrowded, unsanitary pens
on industrial farms or feed lots. Moreover, the cows here exclusively eat grass unlike those in the U.S., which are fed corn to fatten them up, along with antibiotics when they get sick because they cant properly digest corn! Of course, that’s not to say that all or even most of the farming in Vietnam is organic. On the contrary, we understand that organic farming is still very much a niche industry here, and limited to a minority of specialty farms. This fits with our experience as we have often seen farmers spraying pesticides in the rice paddies.
One of the things we love about the people in Southeast Asia is how much they embrace and organize themselves around food - a practice that is truly universal. Vietnamese people seem to adore food and consume it with abandon - everywhere and all of the time! I practically trip over myself trying to get a look at what people are eating, how they are eating it, and what new food item is being sold on the street. I love to try everything! In many cities that we have visited (particularly in the south), sweet potatoes and corn on the
The vegetarian food is sublime
Tofu with mixed vegetables at our favorite vegetarian restaurant in Dalat.
cob are grilled right on the street and sold as a quick, inexpensive snack. Sandwich carts, where you can get a lovely baguette filled with meat or tofu, egg, cucumber, onions, and pastes of unknown origin, are ubiquitous in Vietnam. These carts operate from early in the morning to late at night, and are busy all the time. Another snack favorite of ours is the lovely banh bao (pronounced “bang bow”), which is a sweet, doughy Chinese pastry filled with meat and/or vegetables and sold on the street for about $0.20-0.35. We had vegetarian ones in Dalat, which were divine. And the rice! The Vietnamese can make literally anything out of rice - rice noodles; sticky rice “bread” filled with bean sprouts or topped with chopped peanuts; sticky rice squares filled with meat and wrapped in banana leaf; rice dumplings for dipping in fish sauce at breakfast; and something called “roll cake” which is sticky rice served for breakfast with meat, onion, and fish sauce. And my list only scratches the surface when it comes to the all-mighty rice grain. I even saw rice flavored ice cream in Hanoi! Sometimes Vietnam looks to us like an endless sea of lime
Vegetarian meal in Hoi An
Tofu, water spinach, steamed rice, and ...of course... spring rolls.
green rice paddies dancing in the wind!
Amid all this wonderful food, it shouldn’t be too surprising that we have had some rather unusual dishes in our travels, like the several curious breakfasts that Joe and I had in Hong King. For example, one morning Joe was presented with a fried egg paired with a soup of elbow macaroni, a few vegetables, and a couple of slices of meat. His meal also came with a slice of "carrot cake" which, counter to our expectation, was a salty, gelatinous substance of unknown origin! One of my breakfast selections was "seafood congee" - a creamy soup of rice and seafood topped with green onion, and wontons. I loved it! I also had fun trying frog legs at a restaurant in the Mekong Delta. They were good, but a touch slimy and kind of hard to eat - it was like eating teeny, tiny slippery chicken legs!! Since that meal, I’ve seen live frogs for sale in the market and subsequently decided not to order frog legs anytime soon.
Also in our top 10 list of unusual Asian delicacies is the infamous “che,” (pronounced “chae”) which we tried for
Lotus Flower (Hoa Sen) Salad
In Dalat, lotus flower salad is enjoyed with rice chips.
the first time at a street market in Hanoi. Che is a crazy cocktail whose ingredients, flavors, and textures vary with the vendor. A sweet starter liquid is enhanced with fruit, corn, tapioca, green beans, black beans, kidney beans, and/or rice. The penultimate product is topped with coconut milk and served on ice. Our first cup of che had kidney and garbanzo beans in it, along with several other unidentifiable food items, including small black gelatinous cubes which I now think were black rice-jelly cubes. It was a total hoot to watch this being made and we enjoyed every drop. After I finished that glass, I said I didn’t feel the need to try it again. But, who knows, I might be ready to try another one soon!
In addition to the food itself, the restaurant norms have added a whole other layer of dining fun for us. In Hong Kong, for example, going for dim sum on a Sunday morning, along with nearly every other person in that densely populated city, turned out to be one of the most interesting experiences of our visit there. All three floors of the frenetic dim sum restaurant were packed and
no chair was left unoccupied - you sat in whatever chair was empty regardless of who else was at the table. The acquisition of the food resembled a contact sport. The Chinese were out to socialize for the morning but when the food carts rolled out of the kitchen, it was serious business. No one waited for the carts to roll past their table; as soon as people heard the wheels of the carts squeaking, they were out of their chairs rushing to get whatever was being served up. At first, we waited politely at our table but eventually joined in the stampede as we got more comfortable. And, the restaurant staff was great - they went out of their way to find the only two forks in the kitchen when they noticed us struggling with the chop sticks!
In Vietnam, we have had all kinds of funny, awkward, and embarrassing things happen to us at restaurants. For example, it is typical for the wait staff to bring a menu and then stand at your table and wait for you to order. This can get a little stressful, since it usually takes us a long time to look
Jackfruit tree in the Mekong Delta
This is the stinkiest, most putrid-smelling fruit we have ever encountered, yet it tastes delicious! We just recently had the opportunity to try it (because we would never have bought it on our own) and we loved it! Who knew...
through the entire menu and deliberate about what to order. So the waiter ends up awkwardly standing at our table, looking over our shoulders for a painfully long time unless we can successfully communicate that we need a minute to look. We are mystified at how Vietnamese diners know what they are going to order the second they sit down - particularly because restaurant menus commonly come in binder-like notebooks and consist of 10-15 pages!!!
Another funny thing is that we often don’t fit in the little plastic chairs and tables that are set up along the street at Vietnam’s many outdoor restaurants. We are very big people compared to the locals (someone once tried to tell us that we had to buy three tickets on a local bus because we didn’t quite fit into one seat) and many restaurants offer tables and chairs that would be appropriate for children in the U.S.. We have eaten many dinners with our knees in our chest because of the ill fit!
And then there is the napkin situation... When we first started traveling, there were never any napkins on the table so we started bringing little packs of
These are a type of lychee fruit called rambutans. You peel the red, spiky skin to reveal the smooth, sweet white flesh inside. There is a pit inside, so you chew the flesh and then spit out the pit.
tissues with us to dinner! Some restaurants supply little tissues; others seem to have something like a roll of toilet paper in a tissue box on the table. Still others put out the tiniest of tiny napkins - napkins so small that even the neatest diner needs about 20 of them to wipe their lips and clean their fingers after eating. Often the “napkins” are small, square pieces of note paper which crinkle when you use them! At other restaurants, there is a small charge for a frozen towel that is brought to your table in a sealed aluminum bag! There have been times when we’ve been so hot that we just laid those frozen towels over our faces before dinner and used our shirt as a napkin after we ate! Furthermore, and we don’t quite understand why, there seems to be a tradition of discarding one’s used napkins, along with any unwanted food or other paper/plastic scraps, by throwing them on the floor underneath the table even though there is usually a waste basket next to each table. This is the one practice we don’t try to emulate!
My goodness - all of this writing has made
Breakfast in Dalat
Guests from all over the world swap travel stories and tips while they share a colorful buffet of Dalat's finest fruits and vegetables every morning at the best run hotel in Vietnam! The lovely children in the family serve up coffee, passion fruit juice, and your choice of eggs, while the buffet includes a free-flowing supply of baguettes, avacados, yogurt, bananas, dragon fruit, pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, peanut butter, jam, and the Australian delicacy - vege-mite (yuk!).
us hungry! We are off for a snack. Chao tam biet…until next time!
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