First Written for FreeB&B, May 2017
Vietnam is undoubtedly a country of contrasts. North, south, coastal or inland, it feels as if every inch of the country has its story to tell, and at times it can feel like all 101 stories are being shouted at you at once, clamoring to make themselves heard. That said, if there was one thing that could claim to unite every voice in Vietnam, it would have to be the sheer passion that goes into Vietnamese food.
I come from a pretty foody background, having spent the last far-too-many years working in hospitality in London. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredibly talented chefs from a range of backgrounds who have constantly strived to achieve just one simple thing in their cooking: Balance. And balance, it would seem, is something the Vietnamese have in spades.
Somehow, and to this day I’m still not entirely sure if it is by accident or design, but even the most humble street side eatery achieves a balance of flavour, texture and spice that any classically trained chef would be proud to call their own. But don’t start to imagine vast, shiny kitchens with high tech equipment and fancy ingredients. To the contrary, many of the classic Vietnamese dishes have their roots in the communist days when life was much harder.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner receive very little differentiation in many Asian countries, and Vietnam is no exception. It took me a day or two, but my pre-9am chilli tolerances soon adjusted and my morning Pho intake soon became a key part of my daily ritual. In fact, writing this some weeks later in Sri Lanka over a breakfast of Dhal and rice, I thoroughly miss my soupy companion.
Pho is probably the best known of the Vietnamese classics, and for good reason. A hearty bowl of goodness and born from humble roots, this fresh and spicy broth is the very essence of this mighty country, in a bowl. A true peasant’s dish which has been crafted, refined and elevated to new levels during the countries recent economic boom.
Essentially, Pho (Pronounce “Fuh”) is a huge bowl of light, fragrant and subtly spiced beef stock, garnished with soft rice noodles and an abundance of fresh herbs. In the north, thin slices of raw beef are added at the last second whilst those in the south prefer to add generous hunks of slow cooked brisket. A squeeze of fresh lime and generous spoonful of freshly sliced chilli adds a fragrance that can’t help but envelope the streets of a morning.
A possible reflection of the pre-war economy, those in the north and Hanoi in particular like to keep their soups simple, and add very little extra. In fact, the clarity of the broth is often considered the first indication of it’s quality. The south however prefers to add a little Hoi Sin or Chilli sauce to further enrich the flavours – an unnecessary addition in my opinion, but not without it’s merits.
With most of the street-side Pho vendors sold out and packed up by lunchtime, the small charcoal burners and wire-mesh grills begin to fire up, signalling the arrival of some of the best street side BBQ you could hope for. The vendors are always looking to inject maximum flavour into the dishes, meaning you can fine minced shrimp pressed around a stick of lemongrass, or tender hunks of minced pork wrapped in fragrant leaves and grilled directly over the hot coals.
It’s these beautiful porky-bundles that make up the cornerstone of another Hanoi classic: The mighty Bun Cha. Hunks of barbecued pork sit atop a mound of soft and slightly sticky vermicelli rice noodles, fresh herbs, pickled veg and another healthy dose of fresh chilli. Unlike in western cooking where the dip-pot on the side usually contains little more than a condiment, it is in fact this very sauce which binds the whole dish together.
Typically, the dipping sauce for Bun Cha is comprised mainly of the ubiquitous “Fish Sauce”, along with lime juice palm sugar and chilli. Considering the country’s vast coastline, it’s only to be expected that fish, or fishy derivatives, have embedded themselves firmly in the culinary identity. Alone, this fermented fishy liquid is rather pungent, but artfully blended into various sauces and dips, it adds an unmistakable edge to every dish it graces.
On the topic of seafood, I think it’s fair to say that the Vietnamese have created a new seafood dish for each of the country’s 3260 kilometres of coastline. Perhaps I’m stretching the point, but it is truly remarkable how such wonderfully fresh seafood can be cooked in so many different ways, without becoming overcomplicated. The freshness and quality of the produces always shines through, with often just minutes between the boats landing and the fish hitting the grills.
Perhaps one of my fondest memories of Vietnam was a day when we road our motorcycles along the coastline of the Mekong Delta, and stopped for lunch at a roadside shack where a fishing boat was just unloading that day’s catch. A small, scruffy board stood outside, yet to be written but would surely later boast the merits of that day’s catch.
Freshness being the absolute cornerstone of any good seafood, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, and we elected to take an early lunch there and then, at around 10am. My Vietnamese language skills are definitely towards the ‘non-existent’ end of the scale, but we managed to find one mutual word which suited our wants: Shrimp. But if you are now picturing the small brown things that English pubs insist on serving up with brown bread and butter as some kind of punitive snack, then think again.
Each around 10 inches in length and the thickness of a fine Cuban cigar, these plump bad-boys were surely a recent relative of the lobster family. Cracking open their still-steaming shells yielded enormous amounts of sweet juicy meat. Mercifully, these guys had avoided the usually ubiquitous dose of seasonings and flavourings and the sea water alone provided the perfect amount of seasoning.
I think it’s places like these that truly represent the pinnacle of the restaurant scene in Vietnam. Only to call them restaurants at all is somewhat of an injustice, because they are not. They are people’s homes, opened to the public and invariably selling only a handful of different dishes. Far from restricting the appeal of such places, this heartfelt commitment to the faultless execution of a simple menu is a lesson that would be welcome in many a western country.
Another joy of eating out in Vietnam is the fact that, unlike the majority of their neighbours, the Vietnamese use the Latin alphabet, albeit excessively garnished with accents, squiggles and the like. This makes understanding menus in restaurants too small to offer numerous translations, actually possible. Whilst the language itself is still alien, you can very quickly pick up enough words to order yourself a simple meal and gain the infinite respect of the locals for making the effort.
For example, “Mi” is the general term for noodles, “Xao” describes pretty much anything that is fried in a wok, and “Bo” refers to beef. Apply the wonderfully simple Vietnamese sentence structure (at the level at any rate) and you get “Mi Xao Bo” – Beef Fried Noodles! If you were feeling particularly riské one day, you could even swap your Mi for some Com to get yourself a cheeky Beef Fried Rice.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Vietnam, then I implore you to do so with an open mind and an empty belly. Whilst some dishes may not sound like the food we are used to at home, they are invariably cooked with such love and attention to detail that the combinations of flavour and texture alone are enough to satisfy both the pallet and soul.
Already visited Vietnam and keen to share some of your Vietnam Tips with us? Maybe there’s a hidden gem in Hanoi or a secret eatery in Saigon? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch in the comments below! Cảm ơn bạn!
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