History likes to repeat itself and what happened first in Malaysia, happened now in Vietnam: utter gluttony and painful aftermath. This year, for the first time in my life, I have a New Year’s resolution, one that I keep repeating like a mantra. I will order one dish at a time, I will order one dish at a time… How it got to this point, I will explain in the coming posts. The main thing is, even though the Vietnamese are petite, they eat like dragons, the portions are huge and despite lots of greens, the dishes aren’t that light.
Our first taste of Vietnam is at a sandwich stall in Chau Doc. Tremble, ye gluten-free types, for the Vietnamese baguettes are worthy of the sin. Common already in Cambodia, we avoided them because they were stuffed with a shady sort of bologna. In Vietnam, the choice is better. Instead of bologna, the inside of your warm bun can be stuffed with grilled pork, fried eggs, sometimes even sardines or other wonders. This is accompanied by mysterious sauces, chilli, cucumber, marinated veggies, liver pâté and hefty amount of cilantro. As I’ve read somewhere, “they make other sandwiches look dumb”. And truly, after enjoying the Vietnamese banh mi, I have a thousand ideas on how to upgrade the standard Polish sandwich. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that I still badly miss rye sourdough bread with real butter and artisan cheese…
In Can Tho we head to the hotpot alley. The restaurants there have gas burners or electric hotplates on the tables. You choose the type of broth and amount of hungries. Than a pot of soup lands on the burner, followed by innumerable side dishes, which you add according to your whims. We choose the busiest restaurant, where a party of after hour workers are raising toasts with rice wine, and decide on having duck. Promptly appear a basket of greens, various kinds of noodles, eggs and tofu. In Asia the meat is cut with a cleaver without regard to what we understand as ‘parts’ of, in this case, a bird. No wings or drums to speak of. Trying to bite down the chunks held with chopsticks is difficult for us and Marcin, apparently in search of another source of protein, decides to eat an egg. He starts peeling it and, to his surprise, finds it not only raw, but with a sizable fetus, wrapped tightly in a membrane. We’ve read about such delicacies but it’s the first time we’ve come across them face to face, so to speak. The fetus is first thoroughly photographed, then dropped into boiling soup and cooked. Finally, with much chagrin, Marcin eats it. While he’s struggling to swallow the thing whole, a couple at the next table have a good laugh. Seems that curiosity supported by a case against wasting food overcame initial revulsion. (Marcin’s note: beer helped too!) For the curious, the disgusting fetus photo is available here.
The next day, feeling liberated a little by crossing the cultural barrier, we join a street food tour. A guide will show us the supposedly best street food places. This time we’ll be taking it easy. Many Vietnamese dishes are based on the idea behind spring rolls. You may get the ingredients and the wrapper separately and do the rolling yourself. The banh xeo pancake, for example, is torn into pieces and wrapped in leafy greens instead of rice paper. This time we used rice paper to wrap pork, greens, veggies, herbs and rice roodles. Finally, when your roll is ready, you dip it in a sauce and voilà, you may have a bite. It was tasty and fun! We also try minced pork and shrimp pies (in the form of muffins) and have some fresh local beer, foaming happily from a metal bottle. The last stop is a dessert, sticky rice with coconut wrapped in a thin waffle. I also find out the name of a delicious drink that we’ve tried earlier, but weren’t able to transcribe the name from what the waiter said. It’s nước mát, which means ‘refreshing water’ and can apparently refer to various drinks, as when I ordered it the next time, I got an iced tea. The taste is difficult for me to describe, a bit like rice drink I suppose. It quenches thirst incredibly well, very useful when water won’t suffice. We need an expert to tell us what’s nước mát. Maybe you know?
In our opinion, Vietnamese cuisine is great, above all, due to its freshness. Many dishes are assembled at the table from fresh ingredients. The Vietnamese gladly consume lots of fruit, greens, and other weeds. It’s moving to see a factory worker first nipping tiny leaves and then heaping a bowlful them into his pho. Dear men, the greens are your friend.