I’ve stood at the entrance to a Vietnamese kitchen and been told that Vietnamese kitchens are cleaned but once a year. With a laugh I was then beckoned inside. I have, in my notebook, the name for a Vietnamese herbal medicine that will, and I’m quoting an authority here, “Line your gut so the bad bacteria doesn’t get absorbed but everything else flows out.” In other words, I’ve had to imagine the chemical workings of an anal luge while eating crispy, fried pork bits served at room temperature. I’ve consumed so much pureed fruit with condensed milk that I’ve needed to skip dinner, but then had dinner anyways. I’ve sipped ultra-sweet nước mía from plastic cups that crumple when touched, and I’ve done this while watching chickens with slit throats dance until death on a sidewalk. I’ve eaten banh mi from vendors on bicycles, street corners, trains, and boats. I’ve tasted pork pate so fatly decadent that it induced sleep.
I now know that Vietnam is a country where no street food is consumed without worry, no fart is without risk, and where you become grateful for the ubiquity of the spray hose bidet and the perpetual humidity that softens toilet paper into a quilt.
I’ve eaten seafood grilled in an alley, sipped broth made from clam juice, lemongrass, and water and declared it the finest thing I’ve ever tasted. I’ve argued, many times, about why dragon fruit is a waste of stomach space. I’ve grown corpulent eating soup, and become laxative from excess passion fruit juice. I’ve tickled live cuttle fish until they glitter then eaten them thirty minutes later. Underripe fruit, I’ve learned, can be used as a vegetable, and vegetables can be turned into dessert. A sweet smoothie that people like, apparently, is a mix of flavorless gelatin molded to resemble seaweed, overcooked legumes, and slightly sweet coconut milk. I’ve eaten more banana cultivars than I’ve ever eaten, and during this time learned how to peel a rambutan so the fruit stays propped in its hairy shell like a soft boiled egg in a cup.
I’ve worried constantly about the location and/or existence of refrigeration, and I’ve tried, many times, to catch flies that are the size of jumbo jelly beans. I’ve argued with toothless ladies about how many donuts I actually want (their tendency is to quadruple your original order and then charge triple), and have been in awe of frail looking women who heft magnum fruit loads on the fulcrum of their shoulders like nimble Olympians. I have wondered how it’s possible to end up with soup after ordering by pointing to a picture of a grilled pork dish.
I’ve learned that a meal in Vietnam displays the country’s poetry, poverty, and richness. It’s a country that has utilized seemingly all of its acreage to feed itself: it’s carved up its hills, flooded its flat plains, laid netting into its rivers and seas. I’ve seen the night sea’s horizon lined with boats alight with green, almost neon, to lure the squids and fish that will be the next day’s market offerings. I’ve walked under trees that are bountiful with the green, pearl rounds of coconuts and the jagged, tumorous shapes of durian and jack fruits. I’ve shared roads with roosters and chickens that strut, even in dense, urban places, picking at the refuse that’s everywhere. I’ve decided that nowhere is every aspect of a food’s production and consumption more on display: from its growth to its transportation, bartering and sale, preparation and ingestion, all are in front of you, block after block.
Before Vietnam, I met Leonie. She’s no gourmand and is content with simple dishes. Nutella on toast is her favorite breakfast food. That or muesli. Or pancakes. She has a mild obsession with Cadbury’s “Crunchie” chocolate, which is unique to Australia and New Zealand as far as I know. It’s milk chocolate mixed with solid lumps of cavity-creating honeycomb toffee. Kiwis call it “Hokey Pokey.” That I wanted my focus in Vietnam to be almost entirely food related might have come as a shock to her considering how we met.
Flashback to Raglan, New Zealand.
I sat at a communal dining table. Sitting across from me was a young looking blonde girl. Applying the vaguest of recollections here, she ate a meat and potato dish. My dinner consisted of two smashed avocados with salt. I know because she later admitted judging me for it. She’d arrived in Raglan, alone, earlier that day. She was the older sister to a rather tall specimen of a German girl who I’d seen lurking in the hostel library for a few days. This younger sister didn’t say much of anything to anyone, just looked like a bit of an overgrown elementary school drop out, equally shy in conversation, who haunted dark rooms. Leonie, personality wise at least, was the opposite. Physically she was splendidly blonde, daringly pretty, a more realistic St. Paulie’s girl with a perpetually youthful face. She was uncomplaining and possessed a cheerfulness evident when she was being pulverized by waves while surfing or while performing gymnastics with a German boy on the hostel lawn.
Our bonding took place over the next few days. I learned she and her sister owned a car they planned to drive north to Auckland on the same date I needed to get there. I guaranteed myself a seat through a mix of politicking the sister and bribing both of them with Cadbury. (I’ve written before about how friendships are made or broken over reliable transportation.) When Leonie dropped me off in Auckland, I said good bye and figured that was that. Two days later though, I was with the sisters again to explore the city, feeling a bit like a geriatric creeper since I was the eldest by seven years. The next day Leonie provided the necessary female opinion for some wardrobe additions, and when she dropped me off at Auckland’s international airport, I said good bye and figured that was that.
Of course, we ended up staying in touch.
It’s worth inserting an interlude to explain one unusual characteristic of the backpacking lifestyle. The one I’m referring to is the ease with which travelers end up pairing with other travelers, even ones they’ve just met. Backpacking condenses time. What would be months or years of courtship or bonding in the non-backpacking world compacts to hours or days. Part of this owes to the loneliness of solo travel. No matter how much a solo backpacker relishes the solitary road, for every affirming moment alone there is one when they wish they could turn to see someone sharing it with them. Many once in a lifetime experiences are shouldered by one’s lonesome, so there’s comfort knowing another person holds part of the experience as well. The remaining part owes to a backpacker’s transience. Beholden to no one, committed to nothing, backpackers can commit to any plan with ease. And, what’s more, backpackers commit. I’m thinking back to New York City, where people date or befriend by gerrymandering: hell no is the uptown boy that requires a three subway transfer to get to; fuck no is the DUMBO girl while you live Upper West; the girl in Hoboken doesn’t even warrant consideration. A plausible backpacker conversation is: “Hey, where are you? I’m going to Thailand next month, want to join?” “Cool! Doing Great Ocean Road atm, make it three weeks?” “Done. See you in Bangkok.” This is how backpackers find themselves in situations that an outsider would consider foolish, if not crazy. This is how I ended up traveling with a French girl who spoke no English, or wound up canoeing down a river with an eighteen year old Dutch guy.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is Leonie wanted one last trip before attending medical school, and I needed to leave Australia in order to apply for a visa. That’s how we ended up greeting each other with a hug outside Tan Son Nhat International Airport’s terminal. Mid-hug, the first thing I said was, “Did you leave your bag unattended?”
Most restaurants had closed by the time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (calling it Saigon from here on out, since it’s shorter and that’s what it’s residents call it.) We wandered until we found an open place with patrons. The restaurant we settled on, like most, was both inside and outside. Vietnam businesses don’t necessarily have demarcations: the city—its citizenry, its traffic—simply spills into them, laces through their patios, stuffs their interiors. Two groups sat drinking the warm suds of near empty beer glasses, the plates of picked fish and chicken carcasses were nearby in stacks. We were the only foreigners and had a seat outside on petite chairs that were more like square step stools. We delighted in making the Dong to Euro/USD conversion to determine we’d spent 80 cents a piece for our Tiger beers. The pail of ice that our waitress brought went untouched; we stuck to sanitary considerations like this for about twelve more hours. Soon, no stall served food or ice questionable enough for us to refuse it.
Ordering failed. Our waitress was all giggles trying to communicate with us before calling someone whose English wasn’t much better to assist her. She delighted so much in our differentness that anything we said put her into stitches. This wound up happening a bit throughout the trip, but this particular waitress had such a giggling fit that she teetered from our table and stood at spying distance, laughing whenever we made eye contact with her.
We spent the next three days sightseeing. Saigon isn’t keen on air conditioning, so we kept cool ducking into one of the city’s innumerable cafes, plopping under a fan, and drinking dirt cheap fruit juice. The summer temperature and humidity combo is north of 90 F with humidity between 90-100%. Yet the city acts as an ice plunge in the way it arrests your consciousness and shocks your senses: all during a moment you smell kerosene, exhaust, cigarettes, butchered offal, anise, ginger, broth. The smells don’t amalgamate, they inherit their own locus, yet to experience them is to sense them simultaneously. Buildings are inward pushing propositions, hundreds of bundled telephone wires cut up the sky, scooters and cars utilize sidewalks as if they’re passing lanes. The city is a 3D animatronic, and at the end of each day you feel as if your still being alive is a providential gift. Yet the vibrancy is capable of stopping with a snap. When rain comes in—which it does daily and heavy—movement abates. Sidewalk walkers crouch under awnings and motorbike riders pull over and wait out the squall or else cover themselves with ponchos. The city isn’t quieted though, it’s overlaid with wet static. And food—cooking and eating—is everywhere.
It seemed to me that most storefronts, every corner, and every other sidewalk panel was dedicated to the preparation, sale, or consumption of food. There was no limit to what an enterprising Vietnamese cook could do with the limited space they had. A man with nothing save for a gas burner, stock pot, knife, and wood chopping block, prepared on his sidewalk corner a stew of intestines that he ladled into plastic to-go bags. A woman on a bicycle laden with jars filled with opaque liquids, jellies, and tapioca pearls picked from each to concoct a beverage for whatever patron had hailed her. Money in hand, she’d pedal off.
By day three I’d convinced Leonie to hire a food tour guide with me. She’s not a particularly picky eater, seafood is about the only thing she won’t touch, but she’ll grant an exception if there’s enough butter. She agreed, and this is how we came to meet Vu.
Vu is an economist turned professional Saigon foodie. After a job loss he bent a life long obsession with Vietnamese street food into a tour company that caters to tourists. If you’re reading this for travel advice, which I don’t know why you would, because this is mostly an echo chamber for myself, the company’s name is Saigon Street Eats.
We spent the night on motorbike exploring labyrinthian complexes of back streets and alleys and sampling copious amounts of food: conch grilled then served in a downy butter sauce, scallops still on their scorching shells sprinkled with roasted peanuts and cooled with a splash of chili vinegar, pressed-to-order sugar cane juice with kumquat, bone-in poached chicken with rice noodles and slivered banana blossoms all tossed with a briny vinegar. The highlight was an alley seafood restaurant. Banquet seating extended into the street from separate rooms, each packed to the gills with drunk and chummy youths. Cooking was done in the street: an engineered cooking platform had on it six, round canisters stuffed with charcoal that seared the bits of cockle and crab laid on the grill tops above. By evening end I begged off Vu’s suggestion that we get banh mi to go.
I asked Vu whether I was crazy: whether most of Saigon’s stores and sidewalks were, in fact, utilized for food production. He chuckled. The food industry, he explained, is a rudimentary safety net. Since poverty is chronic, and Vietnam’s social security and welfare systems are too paltry to alleviate it, a person out of work generally has no other means of earning. The surest path towards meagre income is to buy a burner, portable gas canister, and some pots and dishes and start making meals. The success of these sort of endeavors has been dependent on two disparate realities: the first is the demographic and living changes that makes cooking for one’s self much rarer. Decades ago every age group and income level cooked. A woman’s worth, to some extent, depended on her cooking skills, and she couldn’t put a husband on lock without being able to prepare a fine meal for the suitor and his family. Then, with Vietnam’s mild economic growth, mainly in Saigon, came increases in real estate prices with small, barely tag-along wage hikes. Infrastructure and housing units lagged in keeping up with the city’s 2-5% a year population growth. People, especially younger people, were forced into cramped living situations, often sharing a bedroom with four or more people. Longer work hours and commute times became the norm. The result—less time cooking, more eating out. The second reality is Vietnam’s relationship with the ingredients that make the food. Freshness is paramount. The cornucopia of herbs and chilis put along side the most basic of pho dishes has never been inside a refrigerator. Even meat never drops in temperature after slaughter: at morning markets butchers hack into whole hog carcasses, the carved loins are left out on cutting boards or hung on iron hooks, and, when bought, tossed into plastic bags where they stay until cooked. The refrigerator itself is like a person non grata. Shopping then, by necessity, is a daily chore that people can’t meet.
“So you need to be careful when choosing a place to eat,” Vu explained. He stationed us in front of an older man seated at the helm of three iron woks. “You look at the work station to determine if it is clean, and you see how the man works to see whether he cooks his food fresh. That is why you see so much cooking out in the street, because Vietnamese people will not eat at a place where they do not think the food is being made fresh for them.” The man dipped the edge of his stir fry spoon into a container with oil and splashed a bit into each hot wok. He added batter, and as its edges crisped he whirled into its center a filling of mince and shrimps and mushrooms. When he folded each crepe looking thing into a half moon, he filled the newly half-vacant space with shrimps, onions, and mince that I realized would be the filling for the next set so he’d waste no time.
Sitting, Vu broke off a piece of the entree—in Vietnamese called banh xeo—and rolled it up in a leaf of lettuce after stuffing it with chilis and Thai basil. He dipped it in a rosy vinegar. “In my village we had food scarcity because of the Communist regime’s allotment practices, so we grew up on chili that was too hot because it warded off people who’d come to steal it from us. So I say my mother made us cry through her food because she put in so much chili. But that chili is the emotion of cooking. Vietnamese food must always have balance. There is bitterness, there is sourness, there is the pain from heat, but there is also sweet. This is the goal of Vietnamese food: to have all the emotions of life in one bite.”
Follow Antonio’s travels and writing on his website.
Antonio Perez is a former New York City corporate attorney who quit his job, sold his things, and bought a one way ticket to the other side of the world. He lives in Melbourne but travels extensively, writing along the way.