Hello Uncle Foreigner

Apr 5, 2015

Adventuring in Vietnam

Moments good, bad, and delicious

The motorbikes of Vietnam are plentiful and fast
Backpacker street in SaigonSaigon from the rooftop
Views of Saigon’s backpacker area from above and below.

Our time in Vietnam was amazing. Exhilarating, confusing, overwhelming, rich and amazing. We visited two cities in a little under two weeks (plus a little bit of countryside), and on the back of our Chinese travel experience, we may have been a little cocky. The ferocity of the tourist-facing sales people was particularly unsettling, and we learned some expensive lessons. But we also met some wonderful people, ate some fantastic food, and had some awesome experiences. Let us take you through some of the moments, people and places that made our trip.

For reference, we started out in Ho Chi Mihh City, went north to the city of Đà Lạt for a few days, fell in love with Đà Lạt and stayed a few days more, and then returned to HCMC to finish out the trip. Also, Ho Chi Minh City is still interchangeably referred to as Saigon.


Spring rolls and noodle soups

Fried spring rolls
Hey, everyone! Serve everything with fresh mint and chili sauce, ok?

We never had a day that was typical, but this one afternoon is representative of our experiences in Vietnam so here’s where I’ll start: On a tip from a local HCMC dining website, we were up in the northern district of Phú Nhuận looking for some Vietnamese tapas. We would never find those tapas; the Saigon restaurant scene moves quickly and this was not the first time we were on the hunt for something that was long gone. The neighbors let us know with a particular Vietnamese gesture, waggling their upturned palm from side to side as if unscrewing a lightbulb: “Nope, sorry.”

But, no matter. We were stranded by the beautiful Nhiêu Lộc canal, the sky was blue and the sun was dappling through the trees. You couldn’t ask for more on a warm February afternoon. There was a cafe with a squat set of table and chairs facing the water, and we made our own tapas.

Because we were out of the main tourist area, the menu was only in Vietnamese. I had cribbed a list of dishes from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s website, but functionally that meant I could only say, “well, this is something with chicken, and that’s probably pork.” So I pointed at a picture of spring rolls, and the die was cast.

We had spring rolls a lot on our trip. We had them with soft shell crab at Chill, a swank bar at the top of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings. We had crap ones at a Western dive in the heart of HCMC’s backpacker district. We even had roll-your-ownies at a small establishment in Đà Lạt. (More on those in a future entry.)

Spring rolls are such a basic idea of what Vietnamese food is … like, everyone knows a spring roll. But they’re such a good crystallization of what makes the cuisine so special.

These particular rolls were simple and fried, with a savory pork mixture inside. You wrapped your roll in a mint leaf and then dipped it in two chili sauces — one slightly sweet and one that was a pure, clear spicy wallop. The layered flavored each took their turn in your mouth, none too overpowering and all equally delightful. Each individual component is so simple and fresh, but they combine into a complex and amazing taste experience.

As we ate, we watched a parade of motorbike commuters zip down Trường Sa street, carrying families, couches, fridges, cases of beer, TVs. The oft cited statistic is that HCMC has 9 million residents and 3.5 million motorbikes. It truly is a sight to see. On foot, grandparents and babies, and dogs and their walkers took in the same panorama that we were enjoying. It was both frantic and peaceful, relaxing and stimulating.

At another cafe a few doors down, the view was the same, but the food was something new! All we asked for was “a snack” — one of the workers spoke a little English — and what we got was a confection of spicy beef floss. Imagine a Twizzler made out of steak, and that you love it. It’s something we never would have ordered on our own, but it was really, really good. It had that spicy-sweet-tangy addictive quality of a good barbecue sauce. We sat and chewed and sipped our Heinekens. More bikes, carrying more improbably large loads, whizzed by.

Peter eating at a roadside cafe
When you’re eating on the street, motorbike parking is never far away.

Since our dinner plan no longer existed, after this we decided to take a wander. Something we both really enjoyed about Saigon was its walk-ability. Unlike a typical Chinese city with its monstrous, sprawling ring roads and skyscrapers, Saigon is divided into human-sized neighborhoods each with a vibrant local street life. Buildings are narrow, short, and brightly colored; cute boutiques are packed in next to ramshackle mom-and-pops; and food/coffee carts with plastic stools and tiny tables spill out all over the street and sidewalks (where they exist). There are, too, your Startbucks and KFCs — Ho Chi Minh City is a growing, cosmopolitan entity on the world scene. But there are also beautifully landscaped public parks every few blocks.

At a busy open street market, we stopped for some phở. If you know about Vietnamese food, you know about phở — a meaty noodle soup with fresh leafy vegetables. And as with spring rolls, noodle soups were a staple of our trip. (As this blogger grouchily explains, to say phở is like bún bò is as if “someone described fettuccine alfredo as ‘like spaghetti’.” But as is my habit, I’m going to group them all together anyway.) Something I’ve figured out about street food is that, despite its humble surroundings, it is crazy complex. In the case of the soups, the broth needs to be boiled for hours and spiced just so. To get the meat the right flavor and texture takes a whole day. And you’ve got a dozen ingredients to chop and prepare just to be a garnish. This all results in a dish that costs approximately 50¢. It’s work that only makes sense to do if you’re serving hundreds.

But I’m glad someone does it. The noodle soups we ate were usually found at market stalls. There’s a noodle and there’s a meat. The broth is clear and packed with flavor. To this, you can add vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime, and chilies to taste. It’s served with a plate including fresh cabbage, coriander, mint, and anise leaves. When you throw this into your steaming broth, the leaves wilt beautifully and start infusing the whole dish with bright flavor. Especially the anise. I do not hesitate to say that this is the best “simple” street food on the planet.

And that’s how it was done. All afternoon, we were kind of lost but not really. There was a plan and it failed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If we knew exactly what was going to happen every moment, there wouldn’t really be a point in leaving the hotel room. And so, we amble on …

Saigon from above, again