Good Noshing, Vietnam

Southbay designer and illustrator Elena Lacey explores unfamiliar food territory with knife, fork and an open mind.

 

As I sat on a junk boat in the middle of Ha Long Bay, the tour staff started to bring out plates for our lunch. Some of the plates they served were unfamiliar—little “squid balls” that might be fried, but I can’t tell—and some almost too recognizable fish with its steamed, yellow eye staring up at me. Welcome to Vietnam.

My friend Erin embarked on a trip with Ethnic Travel, a company that takes tourists around Vietnam and touts an authentic cultural experience. If the goal was to get off the beaten path and avoid major tourist hubs, this appeared to be our program. So as I looked at the steamed eyeball staring at me from my plate, it was apparent we achieved our goal.

Mountains jutted out of the water as our boat sailed on. Erin bit into the fish’s cheek. Our trepidation vanished quickly. The fish, with its perfect combination of ginger and lemon flavor, may have been the best thing we ate the entire trip.

For dessert we ate fried taro balls, which were sweet and crunchy. I just felt lucky to be able to enjoy it all.

For me, food is half the fun of travel. Museums, hikes, sightseeing and nightlife are fantastic ways to experience a new place or a new culture. Food, however, is its own special adventure.

This food lover has an Achilles’ heel. I suffer from an extremely weak stomach. While traveling in Rome several years ago, I got so sick from food poisoning that all I remember of the Vatican was its bathrooms. So when Erin and I decided to meet in Vietnam for a weeklong vacation, I was anxious to say the least.

I met with a doctor several weeks before my trip and got some advice for braving the cuisine of the Vietnamese countryside. I was told something I didn’t know: Eat only hot food.

If the food has been cooked, there is less risk that there will be unfamiliar bacteria that hasn’t been eliminated by the heat. Cold foods, like veggies that have been rinsed off in a sink, are more likely to be holding onto bacteria that my stomach isn’t accustomed to.

With this great piece of advice, we started sampling … steamed snails that we ate with mystery sauce on a sidewalk near a busy flower market in Hanoi, handmade fried spring rolls made by a homestay family near Bai Tu Long Bay. Through it all, I stayed total healthy.

Despite my success, I can’t claim to have been as adventurous with my food tourism as Erin. At one point in our trip we saw a woman cooking balut in a cart on the side of the street. A bit of background on balut: It’s a duck egg fertilized and matured to the point where the fetus is partially developed. It is then boiled and eaten whole from the shell.

I drew the line here because the whole concept freaked me out a little, and thus I missed out on this cultural experience. Erin went for this delicacy. I simply took photos of her bravery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full Tour, Full Stomach Clockwise from top left: Pho with lime and a banana shake; street food in Hanoi; bike parked in Ninh Bính; vendor at a market in Ninh Bính; boats docked at Ha Long Bay; catch of the day; vendor near Ha Long Bay; cold noodles with shrimp at the Lotte Center in Hanoi; two girls pose in front of a meat stand in Ninh Bính.

 

I drew the line here because the whole concept freaked me out a little, and thus I missed out on this cultural experience. Erin went for this delicacy. I simply took photos of her bravery.

Banh mi sandwiches and pho noodles were the extent of my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine before the trip. Fortunately we booked the tour of the Northern Vietnam countryside and didn’t have to make many decisions. Local families or the tour group staff lovingly prepared everything we ate.

1. Pour condensed milk
into a cup.

2. Place Vietnamese coffee grinds into the phin, a traditional Vietnamese
metal coffee filter.

3. Pour hot water over the coffee and close the lid. It should start dripping and take around 5 minutes
to be ready.

4. Stir the condensed milk into the coffee or save it for
a treat at the bottom.

These meals included large spreads of food like fried spring rolls, clam soup, crab cakes (that were served inside the crab shells), prawns, squid and mango. If it was delivered hot, I ate it.

Had we visited the large city of Hanoi, chances are we wouldn’t have known what to order or what to try. We also never would have kayaked through an oyster farm or walked through caves in Ha Long Bay.

One night after dinner we went squid fishing. We took a light and hooked up a little bioluminescent lure. We lowered this up and down in the water until we saw a couple of squids darting past in the dark, then quickly put a red bucket over the light—turning it red. All the squid suddenly rushed up, and we caught them with a net.

I was as stunned as these squid were. Our bounty was served to us the next day for lunch.

One afternoon, in a little village called Ninh Binh, a lovely homestay family served us all a wonderful meal. There was one dish that was a type of cold noodle salad. I was sad not to eat it, as it looked amazing, but I was determined follow my temperature rule.

Later on, one of the French friends we made on the tour told me everyone else got extremely ill with food poisoning. Sometimes it pays to stick to your guns. Well, almost …

On our final night in Vietnam, it was time to try a bahn mi sandwich. I had eaten pho twice, tried authentic Vietnamese coffee and enjoyed every variety of seafood and cooked noodles and veggies available. By this point in the trip, I was feeling confident about my ability to eat just about everything.

I watched as cold, yes cold, veggies were piled into the baguette along with cooked meat. I thought that if I had made it this far without getting sick, I could surely handle some veggies. If I could taste a fish head, I could eat a sandwich!

The bread was crispy and warm, and the meat was covered in a sweet sauce. The veggies complemented it all perfectly—fresh and flavorful. Definitely better than any bahn mi I’ve had in the States, although maybe the atmosphere of bustling streets with vendors and lights and hundreds of motor scooters zipping past without regard to pedestrians made it taste so good.

Was that last meal in Vietnam worth those next three days I spent with crippling food poisoning? I guess that’s part of the adventure of travel. Experiencing street food in Northern Vietnam was worth any sort of risk of getting sick. And I’d eat that sandwich again to prove it.