One of the first things that I notice walking around Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s southern metropolis, is the constant stream of mopeds. We’re looking for a place to cross, but there doesn’t seem to be any traffic lights to interrupt the flow of bikes. So eventually, impatience takes over and we step out and without breaking flow the bikes part smoothly around us enabling us to safely reach the other side.
On the other side of the road is …hum, which specialises in vegetarian Vietnamese dishes. I order the mushroom with ground roasted rice:
For a change of pace we head up the coast to the ancient port town of Hoi An. After alighting from the party bus, so called because of the on-board energising Vietnamese dance music we chill out at a restaurant called the White Rose. White Rose being a delicate, shrimp dumpling dish named because of its flower-like appearance. Between the two of us the dish doesn’t last long at all.
The next day we take part in a cookery class led by lifelong local resident, Van. Starting at 8am we head to the local market to buy our ingredients. There is no refrigeration, the fish has been caught earlier in the morning, the beef from a cow slaughtered the night before, and the vegetables and herbs freshly harvested. Once we have our ingredients we head back to Van’s place and we prepare and eat a mouth-watering total of 11 different dishes, including papaya salad, vegetable rice rolls, caramelised pork belly, steamed red snapper, and beef Pho:
Like the traffic in Ho Chi Minh, there is a flow to the whole process from growing the ingredients to preparing and eating the dishes. The connection you have to the source of the food is palpable. The personal relationships and the use of locally grown ingredients helps enable this flow from field to mouth. And the food is fresh, tasty, and additive and preservative-free.
It reminds me of the exclusive end of the food chain back in the UK, the farmer’s markets and movements such as Slow Food that enjoy a similar connection to source, yet here in Vietnam it is just tradition and an everyday experience for many.
Back in Ho Chi Minh, on the hunt for more interesting dishes, we try out some street food, and places with no name and no menu, but a warm welcoming smile instead. Sometimes the places specialising in one or two dishes are the best. On my last day I head to the Biogarten restaurant for another vegetarian meal, pineapple rice salad:
The combination of the sweet pineapple, and both boiled and crunchy toasted rice works beautifully.
The variety of fresh fruit and vegetables combined with the staples of Vietnamese cuisine; ginger, garlic, chili, fish sauce, shallots, and lime allow for a huge number of tasty dishes. Back home in London, I’ll appreciate the relative safety and stop start nature of traveling across town as I go in search of these ingredients to try out some new Vietnamese-inspired concoctions.