Lime for Days, and More Layers than a 10 Generation Matryoshka (or, What We Ate in Vietnam)

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Vietnamese food is typified by bright, fresh flavors and an abundance of textures, jumbled like a yardsale or neatly layered, depending on the dish and the eater’s predilection for stirring. The lightness and price point – $1-3 per meal – is conducive to experimentation: we tended to order by sight or smell or queue size, and very rarely had to abandon ship. The key to eating well in Vietnam is to stay out of the restaurants.

There are two levels to Saigon and Hanoi: an interior level, consisting of permanent residences and businesses, same as anywhere, and the anterior level, home to produce and dry goods shops and the street vendors, whose carts, caldrons, and tiny plastic stools make them very much a moveable feast. There’s also a compromise layer – open-walled quasi-cafes, which resemble the street vendors in every way apart from their removal from the sidewalk. The few times we did eat in a restaurant, the only Vietnamese were the servers and owners; when they eat out, urban Vietnamese get their meals from street vendors.

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It is hard to find a street in either city without a handful of food vendors scattered along it. Each vendor makes one, maybe two dishes; apart from the soups, there are rarely more than five ingredients. The simplicity and consistency of the vendor dishes means ingredient turnover is very short. Compare that to a restaurant, which may offer as many as twenty or thirty dishes, almost all of them made ahead and left to languish in warming pans, and the vendor’s appeal will be clear, both to your tastebuds and your gut.

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The main difficulty with street food vendors is choosing one. Before we left the US, we created food maps for each of the cities we would be visiting. The food maps were largely populated with recommendations from a few wonderful food and travel blogs – Legal Nomads in Saigon, Sticky Rice and Splendor in the Lemongrass in Hanoi. We did end up ticking a few places off our list, including Chi Thong in Saigon, where I had what might have been my favorite dish of the trip. But we didn’t make it to the majority of them, either because we couldn’t find the alley or the intersection or the cart had shuttered or migrated (in Vietnam, street food vendors do not have phone numbers, much less websites or twitter accounts). By our third day in Saigon, we’d largely abandoned the list, instead picking from the handful of dishes we knew by name or judged might be tasty based on how they looked piled in plastic bowls and plates. A wiser approach is to keep handy a list of the street food dishes common to each city (thankfully for your brain, there is some overlap). Knowing that two dishes which share the same first word may be vastly different, as is the case with Banh Mi (pate and pickle sandwich) and Banh My (tripe soup with baguette on the side) will stave off a lot of frustrated wandering in cities all too hospitable to frustration.

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From what I saw, most Vietnamese street food tends to fall into one of nine categories: soups, banh mi sandwiches, noodle bowls, stuffed rolls and buns, grilled meats and seafood, hearty rice-based dishes, desserts, juices and smoothies, and coffee. The soups are eaten all day, but are most popular as a breakfast food, so some of the soup vendors will be fresh out by nine or ten in the morning. Com binh dan, the genre of homestyle sautees, curries, and fried seafood served over rice, appear at lunchtime (”com binh dan” translates to commoner’s rice; it’s the Vietnamese equivalent of a ploughman’s lunch, though office workers make up the majority of com binh dan customers today) . Desserts seem to pop up in the afternoon, mimicking the french gouter tradition, and grilled meats are more available at night. The rest can be had at anytime.

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The most famous soup is pho – chicken or beef broth with noodles and meat, dressed with herbs, lime, and chili. A bowl can be found anywhere, or at least in the three cities we visited. In pho, the broth is what makes it, and many vendors keep a pot of it simmering all day. Hanoi pho has darker, richer broth and a good deal more green onion; dressing includes fish sauce, chili, and vinegar, to taste. Iin Saigon, you get a basket of herbs – generally mint, sawtooth, thai basil, and cilantro, as well as a pile of mung beans and lime wedges, and you’re welcome to use everything. Being an American hedonist, I much preferred Saigon-style pho, but both have their charms.

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Vietnam’s other famous gustatory export, at least ‘round these parts, is the banh mi, a baguette sandwich, its innards well-smeared with pate, followed by mayonnaise, ham, chicken, or tofu, and a tangle of pickled carrot and daikon radish. Like most vietnamese food, banh mi is a study in textures, fluffy baguette giving way to crumbly pate, slick mayo, chewy meat, and crunchy pickles. Because the Vietnamese baguette is made with one part rice flour,  it yields beneath your teeth easily, but it doesn’t shatter. The one exception can be found at Banh Mi Phuon in Hoi An, a cramped storefront made famous by Anthony Bourdain. There, the baguettes are french through and through: chewy and golden and slightly irregular. With cheese or butter I’d certainly prefer them over their lighter brethren, but in a banh mi, harmony is key, and really good bread can be a bit competitive.

Did you expect a full list of famous dishes? That would be dull, no? Or at the very least, Google-able. And there is only really one other famous Vietnamese dish – at least, America-famous, and that’s summer rolls. Rice paper, vermicelli, bit of poached white meat, herbs, light as it sounds and infinitely more satisfying with peanut sauce.

We hit up three cities in Vietnam, Saigon, Hoi An, and Hanoi, plus Ha Long Bay, which offered dazzling scenery and food not worth writing about. (Except maybe a young banana salad, munged with slivers of tofu, complex and slightly medicinal.)

SAIGON /

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Like any southern city worth its salt, Saigon serves up food well worth all the sweat you expend getting to it. The food is generally lighter than what you might find up north; there’s a higher proportion of herbs to starch and starch to meat. Lighter, and also zingier: more lime, more spice. My favorite dish in Saigon was the charmingly named bun thit nuong cha gio, a bowl of vermicelli tossed with nuoc cham, that heavenly combination of fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime, and brown sugar. The noodles were topped with a few strips of grilled pork and a handful of crushed peanuts, and accompanied by the typical market basket of herbs. The noodles were slippery and refreshing, the meat crunchy with fat. A tablespoon of sauce pooled at the bottom of the bowl; I drank it.

Also wonderful: circles of very stiff rice paper we filled with bits of ground pork wrapped in betal leaf, vermicelli, peanuts, and herbs, and then dunked (quickly, lest the filling fall out) into a peanut chili sauce. These we ate our first night, delirious from twenty five hours of travel and the immersive chaos of Saigon. Brady ate them again our second night, while I sulked because my jet laggy fingers couldn’t fold.

There was so much more to eat in Saigon, of course – grilled octopus, deeply chickeny pho, a Hue-style beef soup sour from pineapple and studded with all sorts of fun piggy bits, from blood cubes to head cheese to trotters. There was also a sublime watermelon slush, a less sublime but interesting sugar cane juice, our first dragon fruit, crisp and mild beneath its shocking pink skin, and passionfruit, the most intensely acid-sweet thing I’ve had, Sourpatch kids included. It was my favorite eating city; if not for my inability to navigate the sidewalks, I would have happily stayed longer.

HOI AN /

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Onto Hoi An. Food in the little yellow port city is a bit dulled after Saigon. Instead of a melee of textures, you get mostly two: soft and chewy. The mustard-yellow cao lao noodles (the hue apparently comes from lye ash, the noodles are made in a process shrouded with purposeful mystery, but I’d imagine it’s like making hominy) and the daffodil-yellow rice are soft; the white rose dumplings – clear, jellyfish-like saucers with shrimp at their centers – are chewy, as are the shreds of chicken in the chicken rice and beef in the pho. At Morning Glory, we slurped thai curry eggplant over those thick yellow noodles, and swallowed miniature pork belly-bao whole. A good meal, made better by the mint green room and excited chatter of two pairs of Londoners, on recognizing the other’s accents.

Our second full day in Hoi An, we biked over rutted rice paddy grids for three kilometers and found, at the end, a 500 year-old communal herb garden and, in its kitchen, an exception to the dual-texture domination. One travel blogger had proclaimed the food at Tra Que the best she ate in all of Vietnam, and after housing crispy, eggy herb-filled bao xinh, a simple, tossed farm salad, and monkfish, doused in turmeric and ginger and steamed whole in a banana leaf, I’d agree with her. I’d agree with her even if I’d only had the salad, because g’ddamn, that salad – the lettuce was powdery and faintly sweet and it sung. Tra Que’s herbs and vegetables come in brilliantly green, thanks in part to a fertilizer made from the blue algae that blooms naturally in the water here, and in maybe larger part from the collective knowledge gained from 500 years of gardening.

The other thing to eat in Hoi An is the aforementioned Bourdain banh mi. Tourists queue up for them from elevenses to late afternoon, when the kitchen closes – and despite their popularity and higher-than-normal meat portions, they’re only a $1 each.

HANOI /

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For all my grousing about Hoi An, we were sorry to leave. From the uncluttered sidewalks to the sunny, seventies-weather to the bikes our lovely hotel proprietors lent us to the lovely hotel proprietors themselves, our tourist life there was so damn easy breezy and often beautiful. Hanoi, we knew, would be chaotic and possibly cold and also possibly not too happy to host a couple of American giants. Our first impression of it – a distant, grey mass at the end of a knot of off ramps, its outlying neighborhoods soupy with smog and gutted with construction – made at least one of us want to bolt in the other direction. But after we’d checked into our hotel, pausing briefly to be bamboozled into choosing the second-most expensive Ha Long Bay cruise in our hotel clerk’s dog-eared brochure, we set out into the narrow, frenetic streets of the old quarter and found ourselves two heaping bowls of chicken-and-odd-bits soup before the evening sky had time to fully purple. As soon as we’d been fed, we softened towards Hanoi. It reminded me, somewhat, of home: wads of people everywhere, everyone hurrying except for the very old, the middle-aged hurrying to work and to the markets, the young hurrying to drink syrupy margaritas in twee cafes with cabbage rose wallpaper and clothbound editions of Karl Marx at every table. Like New York, Hanoi is not a place where people feel much need to insert themselves into your day, and, like New Yorkers, Hanoians are happy to help with directions.

So the food. As I mentioned, a bit more of it will stick to your ribs. Particularly rib-sticky is bun cha – oily, crumbling bits of pork and pork sausage served in a cold broth alongside a big bowl of vermicelli, butter lettuce, and herbs – thai basil, mint, rau ram (a peppery, lemony version of cilantro, with small, narrow leaves). You can eat bun cha as a soupy pasta dish or make a kind of summer role, using the lettuce as your wrapper. Whichever you do, the pork broth is your friend – use it. We also had a fantastic rendition of that noodle dish I’d fallen for in Saigon, only in Hanoi it came with beef, and the beef:vermicelli ratio was higher.

The meat quality in Vietnam is … ethically, much better than it is in the States, I think. At least for chickens, because you have to buy them alive. They have more flavor than American chickens but are stringier. We found our preferred way of eating them in Saigon, and continued it full throttle in Hanoi: legs down. Grilled, the cartilage in the legs and claws takes on a texture not dissimilar to pork chops – a crackly exterior giving way to a softer, but still chewy, interior. They are pretty addictive, and excellent with beer. We also ate a bird of another feather: whole quail, grilled with perilla leaves. Whole meaning: head included. I screamed when my fingers grasped its tiny beak, and again when I spotted it peaking out of Brady’s blazer pocket. The wings and breasts were great though, a little gamy and vinous, duck without its fat.

The quail was an avian interlude on Mark Lowerson’s Hanoi Street Eats evening tour. For three hours, Mark took us into back, back alleys and living room kitchens and tiny storefronts where suddenly beaming women served up salads of spiraled green papaya and dehydrated beef, banh mi the size of a slim cigar, double flash-fried sweet potato and shrimp cakes and and and. The best and was a dessert: fermented black rice topped with fresh yogurt and coconut milk. Not a thing I’d ever have sought out based on the description, and it was sublime: nubbly, chewy rice, tangy yogurt, sweet, cool coconut milk.

Our last morning in Vietnam, I ran a bunch of slow laps around Hoan Kiem lake, and then a few fast ones, and then I quickly showered and shoved my sweaty running clothes into the outer pocket of my suitcase, and then I ate an omelette. The omelets in Vietnam are torpedo shaped, and the ingredients are evenly dispersed throughout, and you eat them with very fluffy examples of baguette, plus however much of their persimmon-hued, mildly hot sauce you’d like to spatter. Still, for all its Vietnamese trappings, an omelet is an omelet. I hate saying goodbye; having an omelet as my last meal was a way to avoid goodbye altogether.

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Lime for Days, and More Layers than a 10 Generation Matryoshka (or, What We Ate in Vietnam)