Travel Indochina’s food writer, Alex Pomeroy, leads us through some of Vietnam’s tastiest treats…
Cast away thoughts of deep fried dog or sautéed cat, if you’re mooting an escape to Vietnam then this foodie focused article is just for you.
Vietnam is a country that demands the attention of all the senses. At over 1,000 miles long this stunning country offers epic scenery, vibrant culture and astonishing food. It is a country in which culture, tradition and food are implicitly intertwined.
Long coasts, high mountainous regions and tropical climate mean that anything grows, and consequently Vietnam benefits from an abundance and freshness of ingredients that appear in a myriad of colours, flavours and textures. Leafy herbs, crunchy vegetables, spiced meats and rice; lots of rice!
A walk through the bustling side streets of Vietnam’s cities enters you into a continually seething kitchen. Street vendors plying their trade, hunched over roaring white coals ever attentive with a genuine pride in their food. Each vendor is likely to specialize in one particular dish, practiced, developed and refined over time.
“Street food” in many western countries tends to mean fast food – we are now so reliant on the burger and its deep fried counterparts. Domestically we are offered little other than a banal format that breeds repetition, with flavour achieved through chemical rather than cultural experimentation. In stark contrast, street food in Vietnam remains the food of the people. Wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, as all good street food should be. Venture off the beaten track and trust in the vendor to show you what they have to offer. Counter to the plastic, sanitized fast food outlets of home, the best Vietnamese eateries will be recognisable by their well-worn, well-loved appearance. The bigger cities offer a wealth of choice and as Vietnam is still one of the poorer countries in the region you can expect your Vietnamese Dong to go a long way.
Vietnamese street food does not simply provide sustenance to the industrious, and indigenous. Having stood the test of its war ravaged history; Vietnamese food has remained an integral and celebratory subtext in the lives of its people.
Well worth a try is the widely available lemon grass flavoured chicken noodle soup (pho ga). This soup is served at every other street vendor and is, as with all Vietnamese cuisine, cooked from scratch and uses only the freshest and simplest ingredients. A bowl of decent Pho will typically set you back $2-3.
In the ancient capital Hue you can savour famed pancake recipes which range from minced beef fillings to sweet slabs of dough served with a deliciously sweet condensed milk. In Saigon a favourite of mine are the endlessly appealing spring roll. In the West this starter is always deep-fried and its contents tend to vary little. In Vietnam expect hundreds of different fillings from mint and raw vegetables wrapped in an uncooked rice sheet to deep friend delicacies like seafood served with over 5 different dips! Elsewhere you can find hundreds of varieties of curry, stir-frys and soups.
On the beverage front you will not be left wanting. For those with a sweet tooth, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, dripping slowly through a strainer is simply heavenly! Bia hoi, beer poured over ice against the diminishing heat of the evening sun is the perfect end to a day’s culinary exploration, sat ever so slightly back from the backdrop of the Vietnamese streets.
As Graham Greene most notably pertained in his novel The Quiet American “innocence is a kind of insanity”. As the westernisation of the Far East continues at a rampant and insatiable pace, the playful innocence and frankness of Vietnamese street food, commands culinary respect.
Alex is a chef, freelance travel writer and copywriter. One of his favourite methods of discovering a new country is to watch a local football game and work his way through every regional delicacy he can lay his hands on. As well as indulging in travel writing he also writes regularly for numerous UK sports publications. Check out Alex’s Google + profile.