Sunday, March 9, 2008

Food of Vietnam

Vietnam, the last of the four Southeast Asian countries we visited, did not disappoint in the food arena. It added more tests for the tastebuds. Each region had its local delicacies that were unique to the area, but the menus always contained Southeast Asian regulars like pho bo (noodle soup with beef).

Pho is an institution in Ho Chi Minh City, where fast pho restaurants like Pho 24 and Pho 2000 are spread throughout the city. Pho 2000 even has photographs of Bill Clinton enjoying Vietnamese pho at one of their restaurants. My personal favorite, fried noodle with vegetables(mi xao),

was easy to find. Unfortunately, Vietnamese menus confused me with fried crispy noodle with vegetable.

The crunchy noodle was no substitute for the thin, ramen-like noodles of classic fried noodle dishes.

Dalat's cool mountain weather supplements the interesting blend of foods found there. The climate allows for fruits and vegetables to be grown that cannot be grown elsewhere in the nation. The market had mounds of strawberries and blackberries.

Dried fruits and vegetables along with fruit jams were market best sellers. Laura and I purchased mulberry sticks, aloe cubes, and dried assorted vegetables, all tasty snacks.

Mornings are often difficult for me as locals enjoy an early pho and western restaurants offer egg and toast dishes, too heavy for me; I'm left asking "Where's me Lucky Charms?" Well, the Lucky Charms aren't in Dalat, but to help one adjust to the cool mornings, they have hot, sweetened soy milk with pate sandwiches, a nice break from the usual.

Dalat street vendors helped us gain pounds as their charcoal burning grills heated sweet potatoes,

grilled corn on the cob with herb butter,

and chili and herb tortillas (the corn and tortillas came from the same vendor).

The extra spicy chili caused Laura to give up her tasty tortilla, and I reaped the benefits. Street-vending children peddled sweet waffle-mix wafers, about five for 25 cents.

Highlighting all of the food of Dalat was the hilltop bakeries. They churned out loads of baked goods, including chocolate filled croissants and almond cookies.

When we were off the beaten tourist trail in the Vietnam coastal town of Quy Nhon, we were invited to a vegetarian luncheon at Tam An pagoda. We scanned the table to find not a single identifiable food on it.

We relied a bit on our translator and on the normally reliable tastebuds of Asians. Although we struggled with our chopsticks to the enjoyment of our hosts, we walked away with full stomachs.

Hue was famous for its eight-course imperial cuisine described in a previous post.

One local restaurant, Phuong Nam Cafe, made excellent fruit shakes for 50 cents. They also made the local Hue pancake of imperial cuisine fame, a decorative BLT sandwich with ham, cucumber, tomato, and french fries,

and the strangest yet tastiest burger we have had in months.

All of their tremendous dishes were less than two dollars, a bargain! We ate too much too often at Phuong Nam Cafe. One Hue street vendor sold fried dough, some with banana or coconut inside.

The snacks were already fried and cool when you purchased but on request, the vendor would toss them in a wok with hot cooking oil to heat them up. Mmmm... twice-fried fried dough, does it get any better?

Local foods weren't more enthusiastically advertised than in Hoi An. The restaurant menus had at least one page dedicated to local foods. Wontons were a big part of Hoi An specialties; fried wontons, wonton soup,

and white rose, a steamed shrimp-filled wonton sprinkled with fried garlic,

were typical mains.

The indisputable king of Hoi An local food is cao lau, doughy flat noodles topped with bean sprouts, croutons, greens, and pork slices.

Authentic cao lau can only be found in Hoi An, as it must be made with the water from the Ba Le Well, serving restaurants since Cham times.

Whether it was authentic or not, the riverside streetfood vendors had the art of cao lau perfected.

During our stay in Vietnam, I didn't search out the Lonely Planet We Dare You foods such as dog, king cobra, or field mouse. I had enough We Dare You foods in Cambodia. In Hoi An, numerous market vendors sold packaged round cookies who just by appearance alone were irresistable.

They had the look of a sweet, crumbly nut cookie. For our long walk to China Beach, I purchased a package. Laura and I tried them at the same time and simultaneously, a look of disgust formed on our faces.

"What is that taste?"

"I don't know. It's really strange."

We each took another bite trying to place the unusual taste within the sweet cookie. As we chewed, Laura had exposed a dark soft object within her cookie; my cookie had the same. A fried garlic clove slice was the source of the unusual taste. For us, sweet dough around fried garlic clove just didn't work. Despite trying, we only got one more down before giving away the package, one of the few failed taste tests of our trip.

To round out the menu is dessert. In Ho Chi Minh City, market food stalls display a plethora of beans and gummies that are selected by the customer to mix with coconut milk and sweetener. The colorful mixture is half meal, half drink and very popular among locals.

Although I rank Thai cuisine at the top of the Asian culinary scale, Vietnamese cuisine is a close second. There is a tasty variety of foods specific to the country, and they create their own spins on the rice, noodle, and soup classics. I can only wonder what regional delicacies I missed by not traveling to Hanoi, the capital city. Hopefully, I've just saved that culinary adventure for another day...

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss being a giant among Asians. My college roommate was 6'5" and during our five years living together, I realized the benefits and pitfalls of being tall. He was a dominating force on the basketball court, an intimidating figure, and strong as an ox. He also couldn't find a pair of sneakers his size, could barely squeeze into a designated driver's Honda Civic, and had to dodge tops of doorways as if he were training to fight Mike Tyson. In Asia, at 5'11", I'm experiencing his life firsthand.

In Hue, we rode our bicycles by a seminary where all of the students were outside playing basketball. I joined in the game where not a single adult player reached my shoulders. They marveled and joked about jumping for a rebound against me, getting a shot by me, etc. I was playing the part of Shaquille O'Neal for a few games. This unusual height can have bad side effects. I've dodged tops of doorways, hanging electrical lines, and road signs; I don't remember those I haven't dodged. I squat to take a shower. My knees often knock the bus seat in front of me. I tried to purchase sneakers and it wasn't until the tenth pair that they had my size... the tenth choice! The streetfood vendors that provide seating have squat seats where my butt is lower than my knees, which often exceed the height of the squat table I eat from.

After decades of wishing for that 6'10" frame that would give me an NBA career, I'm officially retiring the dream. I'll take average 5'11" in the U.S. Mom and dad, please schedule my press conference.

1 comment:

Greg said...

The picture closest to your noodles and vegetables(mi xao) appears to have several several textured chunks of chicken or pork. Now you are talkin'.

From a guy 5'7", your height tome is so enjoyable. Please let me know when the time for the press conference has been set. I'll be representing the Altoona Mirror [PA-USA].

Sure had fun with yo momma at the Boston Flower Show yesterday. Neither of our spouses wanted to share in the 8 hours of bus riding in one day. So we played without them.

from Lake road