The Art of Eating in Vietnam

It’s hot. It’s my first day in Ho Chi Minh City, and the streets, normally packed, are today positively roiling with throngs celebrating Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. Motor scooters and the bicycle rickshaws called cyclos careen crazily around me, the scooters spitting exhaust that tents the tree-lined boulevards in gray haze. Construction cranes, stilled for the holiday, loom over the city like giant birds of prey, and the billboard and shanty-lined river is choked with freighters, barges, and red-sailed sampans. I see limbless beggars on crutches and street urchins darting among camera-laden tourists, spoiling for trouble. All of the contradictions of third-world poverty and rapid development are swirling around me in this city, where even the name is in flux: I hear the old _Saigon_and the official postwar _Ho Chi Minh City_used almost interchangeably.

My guide, Trưươm sen (rice with lotus seeds, shrimp, and chicken, wrapped in lotus leaves and served with a lotus blossom), and banh beo (circles of steamed rice dough covered with pale pink ground shrimp), each in its own tiny dish. It is a tableau of such daintiness that my hands seem suddenly unwieldy and immense—but I take one of everything, and as we begin to eat, Nga and I talk about life and food in Vietnam.

“These dishes are from Hu

In food, this sensibility informs complex preparation, and elevates the act of eating. “Even in ph

Nga herself is both delicate and diplomatic. When I ask about her life during the Vietnam War—which Nga refers to as the Civil War—she demurs, as if to speak of it might tear the fragile bond of a new friendship. But as we circle the edges of the issue, she tells me a bit about her family before the war and reunification, and her eyes fill with tears. In this tranquil restaurant, surrounded by the dishes of kings, it is the persistent memories of war that we can neither discuss nor avoid.

When I was given a chance to go to Vietnam, I had mixed feelings. No American could escape the shock of combat footage exploding across our TV screens 30 years ago. But as a young mother in Memphis, I was insulated from the carnage by the sheer dailiness of domestic duties. I remember a childhood friend, shot down over Nga’s homeland, and listed as missing for over 20 years. And I remember my fury over Kent State, and late-night arguments with friends, as we moved from naivete to world-weariness.

Years later, long after the war, when Vietnam began to reopen to tourism, popular images of the place suddenly became lush, oddly nostalgic. There was a wave of elegant, colonial-chic movies like Indochine_and _The Lover, and trendy, highly Frenchified Vietnamese restaurants like Le Colonial (in New York and now Los Angeles) proliferated. I, for one, was seduced. Yet to others of my generation, the words _Vietnam_and _war_cannot be separated. Memphis is a military town. When I told a friend at a cocktail party I was going to Vietnam, his face froze with anger and he said, only half joking, “I hope you don’t step on a land mine.”

What I discovered almost as soon as I got to Ho Chi Minh City, however, was that my cocktail companion was very wrong about Vietnam, and so was I. The country is emerging from years of diplomatic isolation and a long history of wars in which American involvement was just another painful but brief episode. From the street, Saigon exudes a sense of struggle and a kind of raffish innocence—like a streetwise kid swaggering into the millennium. But at the table, it displays the dignity and refinement of a people who—despite centuries of invasion and poverty—have carefully guarded the heart of their culture, adapting outside influences to their own distinctive sense of propriety.

At the very casual Anh Thảy moan, or “beef seven ways”, is the specialty here, and each of the seven is carefully detailed in its presentation. The first of these is vinegar beef: slices of meat quickly cooked in a boiling vinegar sauce, then served with green banana, shallots, green star fruit, slender shavings of radish and ginger, mint, holy basil leaves, and lemongrass. These are wrapped in translucent rice paper at the table, and dipped into a pungent fish sauce. The green banana’s bitterness and the star fruit’s sourness complement each other—an example, Nga says, of culinary yin and yang—while the lemongrass and ginger aid digestion. The second dish, tender steamed beef heaped on lettuce, with fried shallots, bean-thread noodles, peanuts, and shrimp crackers, is texturally complex and delicious. Next comes ground beef grilled in rich, verdant l

While Saigon’s casual restaurants ennoble everyday ingredients with meticulous preparation—even standards like spring rolls or fresh, tart squid salad are executed with great finesse—the city’s food culture also prizes rarity. I am lured to restaurant Chội, for example, by stories of the legendary ca cuốn, a beetle that lives in rice fields. Owner Võ Khanh, a former English teacher, breaks into a wide grin when I mention the drops. They are the crowning glory of chốn drops. Poised over the dish of fish sauce with his tiny flagon of crystalline fluid, he adds one drop only. The scent takes my breath away. It is like a distillation of all the hyacinths of spring, and it transforms the fish sauce into a different entity, perfumed by both flowers and the sea. The cost: a mere 40 cents a drop.

When I compliment the delicacy of his rice noodles after our meal, Võ darts to the phone and arranges to take me to the shop where they are made fresh each day. We wind through inner Saigon until our car can go no further, then get out and walk through a maze of narrow alleys where rickety houses lean across the streets as if trying to touch each other. Radios and televisions blast from inside the shanties, card games are in progress on stoops, and children play in the dirt. We finally stop at an unmarked building.

Nothing could have prepared me for the elemental beauty of this shop, Lo Bun Khanh—which, owner Bui Banh Khanh tells me, has been in the same location for four generations. Motes of rice flour hang suspended in the clear light as family members carry baskets of fresh noodles through the warren of rooms. Rice bathes in water-filled pottery jars, softening for grinding. It will be mashed to a paste in a hand-turned stone grinder; extruded through a screen; then cut over boiling water. The noodles are fished out immediately and cooled in a cold water bath, then sorted. Sons and nephews keep vats of water bubbling over an enormous brick stove, hurling wood into the fire each time they pass near. The heat is intense and steamy, the work rhythmic. Ladle, stoke, press, sort. Ladle, stoke, press, sort.

Bui introduces me to his mother, Phung thối are the smallest skeins of all, Bui laughs. “Mr. Võ pays twice as much; his noodles are half the size of the others.”

From the corner of my eye, I see men ladling milky rice water with what looks like an army helmet rigged to a pole. The ladle, practical and haunting, moves me profoundly. But then I realize that this is no helmet. It’s only a standard trade implement—and I’m stunned by the power of my expectations to shape everything I see here. I look again. Behind the vats and stacks of rice flour are stalls of fat, pink-clean pigs. Their quiet snuffling mixes with the watery sounds of noodle making, giving the place a medieval intimacy that connects immediately and completely with the stuff of life.

Outside, on Nguyơ Sản Xuấn.

Nguyễn’s brother-in-law slashes the baguettes and slides them into the ovens, and the scent of freshly baked loaves perfumes the air. The bakery produces at least 3,500 baguettes a day, many of which go to nearby restaurants and schools, or are sold retail both on foot and by bicycle.

Baguettes entered Vietnamese life during the French occupation, from 1859 to 1954—a period marked by both fierce resentment of French brutality and tinges of admiration stirred by their introduction of Catholicism, the French school system, new roads, and telephones. Staples like croissants, strong coffee with sweet condensed milk, and baguettes are the edible legacy of the French. Tossed into baskets here on the street—or filled with fresh salad, herbs, and pate and sold by hawkers—the bread is just part of the Vietnamese vernacular.

Before I leave town, Võ invites me back into the austere kitchen of Chội, and I watch as he oversees a preparation of escargots in a style that also seems very French. Morning light washes over the room. Mollusk smells mingle with butter and garlic. A cat uncurls from its nap on a table, stretches, and yawns. Woven baskets line the walls, tucked among pots and pans. I see the traces of absent baskets, taken down for use, pale orbs against a wall yellowed gently with age. To me, it is the imprints that speak, basket phantoms that tell of the rub of time, and the beauty of simple, useful things always returned carefully to their places. As I go, I look back. I want to hold on to this image: the gentle light, the cat that strolls by, the ghostly shadows of baskets on the wall in the heat. This is what I will take home.