There are 7.5 million mopeds in Saigon, and they all seem to be heading directly towards mine. I say “mine”: I’m clinging, with embarrassing intensity, to a local driver who’s conveying me, or what will remain of me, to a Vietnamese pancake restaurant for dinner. “They don’t want to crash,” I keep telling myself, wondering whether it’s better to screw my eyes shut or to be maximally aware of what’s going on around me. “No driver wants to crash.” Then I remember this is a Buddhist country, and the prospect of the afterlife is rather more looked forward to than I’d like.
Having set out in a procession of six other mopeds on a Saigon After Dark tour, it’s intriguing to be second to arrive at our destination, the remaining four tourists rocking up with their drivers at irregular intervals thereafter, one person a full quarter-hour after everyone else. The moped may be the customary way of getting about in Vietnam’s biggest cities, but it may not be the speediest or most reliable.
“I’m a big boy,” one of my fellow tour victims growls when she tries to push some freshly shredded young coconut flesh into his mouth
Tours like this, which promise an evening’s tour of five different food, drink and music venues around Saigon, have to strike a careful balance between authenticity and tourist-coddling. Saigon After Dark muddles this a bit: the first three stops do give us a whistlestop tour of typical Vietnamese street food (a bowl of vermicelli with mussels, clams and deep fried crab; rocket-fuel Vietnamese coffee; spring rolls wrapped in mustard leaves), and typical settings – a streetside trestle table heaped with communal plates, a disastrously overlit indoor food court. So far, so authentic; when the group guide insists on tearing chunks from a banh khoai, a crisp oily riceflour pancake stuffed with shrimp and beansprouts, rather than letting us help ourselves, it starts to feel a bit, well, like we’re being handfed. “I’m a big boy,” one of my fellow tour victims growls when she tries to push some freshly shredded young coconut flesh into his mouth, “I can serve myself.” I dodge the final two stops on the itinerary, since they don’t seem to be related to food at all but offer the chilling prospect of live acoustic music in the Vietnamese and Western traditions respectively – and I know from experience that I’m incapable of maintaining a neutral expression when subjected to Ed Sheeran songs performed by basic buskers up to and including Ed Sheeran.
My two weeks in the country, devised by the region’s most renowned travel operator, InsideAsia, as their “Gastronomic Trails of Vietnam” tour, started in Hanoi and took in Hoi An, Danang, Ky San, Hue and Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City: locals seem to use the names interchangeably, perhaps hinting at personal ideology). It proved long enough for me to gain a pretty convincing overview of a cuisine that is consistently refreshing, enlivening, delicious… but intriguingly undiverse. On my first morning in Hanoi, I started as I would continue: perched on a tiny plastic chair at 7am on the exceptionally narrow pavement of a roadside stall that serves a mere one dish, but a surpassingly good one: a clear, fresh, crabmeat soup with fine noodles, herbs, beansprouts and a local pork sausage, rather heavily processed but quite delicious – the whole thing so zingingly spicy and bright with mint that it startled my synapses into life so much that I was able to hold a conversation, something I normally try to avoid before the clock hits double figures.
It wasn’t a relaxing breakfast; not only was the street awash with mopeds weaving in and out of one another’s path, bipping horns constantly, they would at times pull up next to or practically on top of where I was eating my soup; the phrase “sitting target” has never come so literally to mind.
It is fast food prepped from scratch before your eyes, consumed in minutes by busy patrons. The turnover is huge
That crab soup was one of the more unusual dishes I ate in Vietnam. Unlike in Italy, say, where cuisines can vary widely from region to region, Vietnamese food draws from a relatively limited core set of ingredients and techniques; the differences are not in constituent ingredients but often just in the proportions. There’s a grilled or ground meat (usually beef or pork) or seafood (usually shrimp or prawn, seldom fish). There is always a form of starch, usually noodles – either fine translucent vermicelli or local variants, such as a thicker, chewier noodle unique to Hoi An that’s made yellow by being rubbed in ash. There are huge bundles of herbs – perilla, mint, basil, dill, coriander – and there’s a dipping sauce or a soup built up from fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and stock, varyingly diluted. Sometimes the meat and noodle is wrapped in leaves and dipped in sauce (as in the grilled parcels of bo la lot); in other dishes the meat is piled in a bowl of noodles and herbs with cold or hot stock poured over, as in pho, the omnipresent and extremely customisable meat-veg-noodle soup. Bun bo Nam Bo, which I had on my first night in Hanoi, is a bowl of vermicelli noodles, grilled beef and copious herbs mixed with a dilute fish sauce and topped with peanuts (which seem unique to this variation of the dish); there’s also the similar but distinct bun cha: “cha” means pork, and this soup might contain grilled pork fillet, sliced belly or meatballs. Undeniably these are delicious meals, with a skilful balance of sweet, sour, sharp and spicy; they’re substantial and satisfying but not heavy, kept fresh and reviving by the herbs, chillies and vinegar. On the downside, the lack of variety can become a little repetitive over a long stay, especially since these are the foods on offer at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Part of the reason for this relative invariance, I think, is the way in which food is eaten here. The shutters roll up on tiny roadfront stores, the nursery-school chairs are set out, and the ladies in charge (and they are almost always ladies) begin endless iterations cooking their one speciality dish on a tiny stove wedged between the scraps bins on one side and you on the other. It is fast food prepped from scratch before your eyes, consumed in minutes by busy patrons. The turnover is huge, the cooks’ activity a production line until the shutters come down. Though certainly lively, exciting, sometimes challenging experiences, a succession of such meals did leave me feeling the need to book dinner in a more formal restaurant, such as Hanoi’s relatively fancy Cau Go, with views out across the water of Hoan Kiem Lake, or the more basic Hanh in Hue where I filled up on bun cha and little riceflour pancakes with shrimp and pork crackling. I opted for these slightly fancier places mostly because some days I wanted a bigger menu to choose from, and a bigger chair to sit on.
There is, as if to fulfil Westerners’ clichéd expectations of Vietnam, dog
Oddly, however, the vast sprawling street markets are crammed with gorgeous foodstuffs that rarely seem to end up on a menu. In Hanoi, I meet Chef Ai, a runner up on MasterChef Vietnam, who hosts cooking classes in her home and takes visitors around one of the city’s biggest markets. Every street in this part of town is crammed with stalls and vendors offering a significantly wider variety of ingredients than you will find in those roadfront eateries: varieties of pork and riceflour sausage; bouquets of zingingly bright green herbs – dill and “fool’s dill”, purple-backed shiso, several unfamiliar varieties of mint and basil (including, confusingly, a type of basil that tastes exactly like spearmint); clusters of citrus fruit including green kumquats with pippy orange flesh (unlike Thai food, for instance, lime and lemon don’t make much of an appearance in Vietnamese cuisine); the variety of vegetables that must presumably be cooked at home rather than “out”; live, lively bream flopping around in (and sometimes leaping from) their tubs of seawater; buckets teeming with crabs, snails, edible grubs. There is, as if to fulfil Westerners’ clichéd expectations of Vietnam, dog: a lone specimen on a market stall, skinned and burnished red by roasting, that resembles nothing so much as Santa’s Little Helper, the dog from The Simpsons. Chef Ai is dismissive: “This is just for the tourists,” she mutters, before telling a dark tale about how the eating of dogs only came about when famine conditions hit Vietnam; nowadays, as there is no farming of dogs, markets like this are supplied, according to Ai, with kidnapped family pets.
In a cooking class that’s more demonstration than participatory (I’m permitted to dilute fish sauce to make various dressings and sipping sauces) Chef Ai prepares a dish that London’s Vietnamese restaurants give the unprepossessing name of “piggy aubergine” – the aubergines roasted until the flesh is melting from the blackened skins, then peeled, sliced and topped with cooked ground pork mince – and a stew of meaty, chunky catfish marinated in yoghurt and turmeric then cooked up in a dry pot with the customary enormous bundle of herbs.
Chef Ai isn’t the only person cooking what one might cautiously suggest is “Mod Viet”, or at least a more diverse menu. In the party atmosphere of Mango Mango in Hoi An, Chef Duc cooks a kind of Asian fusion: minced shrimp wontons with tamarind caramel, red snapper tempura, and his version of Pekin duck; in Saigon, Luke Nguyen, whose cookbook The Songs of Sapa I regularly cook from at home has the stylish and contemporary (if comparatively pricey) Vietnam House, where I ate salads of snail and starfruit – the only time I saw either of these ingredients, available at all the street markets I toured, actually cooked – and chicken and pomelo, as well as the more familiar banh bot loc and bo la lot.
By contrast, more trad food was prepared for me at the Hue home of Miss Huy, who cooked me a feast in miniature: spring rolls of pork wrapped in mustard-green leaf, yam soup, and a kind of tasting menu of salts in which her guest is invited to sprinkle squares of cooked vermicelli noodle with, among others, sesame salt, chicken salt, cured pork salt, “tofu salt” and half a dozen hypertension-inducing others. As “dessert” she serves a kind of mung bean cake, stodgy and rather bland. And although dessert isn’t a big thing in Vietnam, there are stalls along the riverbank in Hue that open only in the evenings to sell the local equivalent. Teens cluster here as they might in malls elsewhere; moped-riders screech to a halt worryingly close to your tiny chair, grab a ladled cup of apple and lotus seed soup, cooked bean paste or clear, flavourless jelly and roar off again. These reminded me of Japanese cuisine’s emphasis is on differences in texture rather than flavour, and where a deeply visually appealing plate of sweetmeats can often seem bland to the Western palate.
It would be wrong to suggest that the Vietnamese don’t have a sweet tooth, though, as evidenced by a peanut-flavoured condensed milk drink I accidentally ordered at another Hue market (I thought I was ordering banh mi – don’t ask), and also by the local coffee. The raw beans are roasted with butter, giving them a caramelised flavour that makes even a plain black filter coffee treacly in both consistency and taste. Peculiar to Vietnam is the egg coffee, a shot of espresso topped with a kind of egg custard, purportedly devised through necessity when dairy wasn’t available and somebody fancied a cappuccino; it was a little like drinking very wet coffee-cake mix, but nicer than that sounds. Best of all, or perhaps worst, was a long drink mixing the sweet espresso with condensed milk to make either a kind of iced latte or a type of rocket fuel. Not since I used to own a twelve-cup stovetop espresso maker has non-alcoholic drink left me feeling so unhinged. It’s also deeply, disastrously more-ish: although at home I wouldn’t be caught dead in a chain coffee shop, I found myself popping in to the Vietnamese equivalent, the rather questionable Café Cong – think Starbucks with a Viet Cong theme – for just one more of these: less a pick-me-up than a where-will-I-end-up-this-time?
It’s become a truism that no tour of Vietnam is complete without following in the footsteps of the late Anthony Bourdain, who in one episode of his frenetically edited show, set in Hoi An, put his valuable imprimatur on a particular vendor of banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich that fits more food than seems possible into, incongruously, a French baguette of the sort of you’d usually buy uncooked from a supermarket freezer section. Credit where it’s due: bursting with sliced pork, pâté, herbs, beansprouts, sriracha-like chilli sauce, Ms Vy’s banh mi is a sandwich you find yourself craving immediately upon finishing it. It’s definitely the luxury version of the dish: a few nights later in Hue, I sample a more everyday banh mi: smaller, far less stuffed, tasty but not quite so luxurious, and costing the equivalent of about 30 pence.
Food from overseas doesn’t seem to have made many inroads into Vietnam, bar the exceptional (in all senses) Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in La Maison 1888, a hotel high above Danang Bay on the well-named Monkey Mountain; given my sometimes disastrous experiences with, say, “Italian” restaurants in Tokyo, this is something of a mixed blessing, After two weeks I’m keen to eat something that isn’t noodle-based, fish sauce-flavoured, sour-sharp-spicy. I’m even craving actual vegetables – and I’m Scottish, so that’s quite the admission. Visiting Vietnam is a must – the city streets mobbed with mopeds and the quiet rural roads, the tombs and temples, the truly moving and rightly horrifying War Remnants museum in Saigon, the broad muddy Mekong with its riverside factories devoted to extracting every single usable part of the coconut, from matting to milk. But foodwise, it has to be admitted, the better Vietnamese restaurants where I live in East London make food every bit as good as their counterparts in Saigon or Hanoi, albeit they perhaps lack the roadside eateries’ element of danger. Maybe that’s the great success of Vietnamese food: with its relatively concise palette of ingredients, and the multiple uses each component can be put to in different dishes, it’s a cuisine that can travel easily, that’s hard to get wrong, and that’s always delicious. C
InsideAsia (0117 244 3370; insideasiatours.com) offers a “Gastronomic Trails of Vietnam” tour from £3,495 per person for 13 nights, including all flights, accommodation, tours and transfers