Vietnamese Pho

An Epicurean's Guide to Vietnam

Michael Moore|October 20, 2016|Blog Post

Michael Moore has been working with us for nearly a decade; he earned both his BS in biology and an MS degree in ecology, ethology, and evolution at the University of Illinois. As an expedition leader, Mike has led travelers everywhere from the equatorial forests of New Guinea to the Great White Continent of Antarctica, and many places in between. We recently caught up with Michael to find out why he's so excited to return to Vietnam next January.

When asked to write a blog entry about our upcoming expedition to Vietnam, I immediately said, “Sure!” I love Vietnam, I love the people, the markets, the non-stop photo opportunities, the smells, the unique look and movement of the traffic, and of course the history. But I had a problem… I’m not an expert on any of this. Sure I’ve been to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, but I’m no author of Vietnamese history. I’ve had a tailor-made suit crafted for me overnight, but I’m no historian of textiles. I’ve eaten a thousand meals, but I’m not an authority of the history of Vietnamese cuisine either—however, I AM an expert eater!

Vietnam is an eaters’ paradise. In true Pavlovian style, if you mention Vietnam, I begin to salivate. The cuisine has something for everyone from spicy to subtle, tangy to sweet, and most often an unimaginable balance of all of these things. Balance is indeed the primary ingredient of all Vietnamese food, whether you get it in the nicest restaurant or from the humblest street vendor. Street eating, in fact, seems to be the national pastime in the towns and cities of Vietnam. From early morning pho, spicy noodle soup with cured meat and herbs; restaurants, impromptu sidewalk collections of mini plastic stools; to late-night street grills making bánh mì, grilled meat in a baguette inspired from the French. Upon reflection I have to admit the vast majority of my time in Vietnam has been spent eating.

But then again, eating is experiencing Vietnam. The sheer variation in Vietnamese cooking makes it hard to characterize. Integrating ingredients from both the north and south, as well as styles from colonial powers, it is the balance that again is uniquely Vietnamese. Noodles, rice, pork, chicken, fish, beef, fruits, and vegetables are all in a kaleidoscope of colors and reactions on the palate. Herbs and spices complement everything in the most contradictory way; simply executed but complex on your tongue. Lemongrass, coriander, mint, lime, basil, and chili are most common, but are probably the only ones I can reliably recognize.  

Eating is simple in Vietnam. Most restaurants only serve one or two dishes, and usually have the name and the price posted on the wall in big letters. One has only to walk back and forth among the diners seated on tiny plastic stools or often squatting on the sidewalk to get a good look and smell of what is on offer. If the fare is to your liking, simply sit when a space opens—usually sharing a table with a local, exuberantly slurping—point to the sign on the wall, no verbal requests usually needed, and soon comes the most delicious concoction you would have never imagined. Most portions are not huge, so one can spend an entire day walking the streets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City going from breakfast, to after-breakfast snack, to second-breakfast, to lunch, to…

My experience is by no means comprehensive, but food is the main reason I am going back on our Vietnam: Culture and Cuisine trip in January. Here are a few dishes I’m looking forward to:

 

Pho

As mentioned before, this hot soup comes in a dizzying array of styles as you progress north to south, but the basics of beef broth with noodles remains constant. A dose of hot chilies tops any caffeine in terms of giving you a kick in the morning to start your day.

 

Bún Chả

Barbecued pork with rice vermicelli. Again, never duplicated in its presentation and accompaniments, but addictively delicious every time. By the way, the rice noodles seem to be almost a currency in the city—they are packaged in rolls and bundles and wraps, dry or pre-cooked, and are being carried to and from every restaurant on bicycles, mopeds, and carts. Seemingly tangled into a permanently chaotic knot, they are added to your piping hot broth at the last moment, to magically uncoil and deliver more complexity than string theory in terms of flavor.

 

Cha Ca

A northern specialty I discovered in a second-story, one-room restaurant that took quite an effort to find. Fish marinated in turmeric is served in a hot dish with dill as the main vegetable. 

 

Gỏi Cuốn

Well-known but that makes them no less delicious… the spring rolls. These are the spring rolls that should be called by their literal translation, ‘salad roll.’ These are fresh rolls of rice paper, wrapping ingredients such as shrimp and/or pork with herbs including cilantro and mint. They are to be held in contrast to the slightly more sinful Chả giò ( Nem in the north), which are the deep fried rolls (still of rice paper, not flour!) that are eaten in a variety of styles. On first glance you could confuse them with a Chinese egg roll, but don’t make that mistake!

 

Banh Cam

As an ending I offer this one type of a huge array of Vietnamese donut. This one has as bit of sweet mung bean paste in the middle. A perfect finish to one of the days’ seven staple meals. Good luck trying to discern WHICH of the nation's donuts you are buying when the vendor approaches you with a dozen on a stick, but the danger is minimal.  

 

The only peril of experimenting with food in Vietnam is that you are tempted to eat too much of one thing, causing you to miss the next meal. I, for one, am looking forward to the challenge!

 

Join Michael on our Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine expedition!

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