Dis­cover Viet­nam’s

sen­sory sen­sa­tions

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Viet­nam’s cities are grow­ing up and this has been met with a tinge of sad­ness from for­mer vis­i­tors and res­i­dents. Nos­tal­gic for the au­then­tic­ity of ram­shackle streets, petite girls dressed in flow­ing ao dai ped­alling on bi­cy­cles, and street-food ven­dors jostling with am­bling pedes­tri­ans, it’s hard to vi­su­alise from afar how a mod­ern edge will cut into the in­her­ent charm of Viet­nam.

So it was with a hint of trep­i­da­tion that I re­turned to the coun­try that has re­mained in my fam­ily’s heart since we lived and worked in its most bustling and hec­tic cen­tre, Ho Chi Minh City, still com­monly known by its for­mer name, Saigon. For five ex­tra­or­di­nary years I ca­reened along un­even roads on a mo­tor­bike, lurch­ing up moun­tain­sized kerbs to nav­i­gate side­walks, snaking along­side bikes groan­ing with fam­i­lies, build­ing sup­plies and live an­i­mals, zigzag­ging the flooded streets to de­liver two lit­tle boys to school, dry and un­scathed, be­fore twist­ing back into the whirlpool of traf­fic to find my own des­ti­na­tion. I loved ev­ery minute of those bike jour­neys, as they height­ened my sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence of this di­verse 24-hour city.

My fears of an un­recog­nis­able city were un­founded. The changes are ev­i­dent but not all are dis­ap­point­ing. My heart didn’t break as I wan­dered the streets on foot. Boule­vard-style bou­tique shops for the rich and fa­mous are ap­pear­ing, but the tra­di­tional life of Saigon re­mains at the core and once again en­livened my senses.

The newly opened Nguyen Hue pedes­trian prom­e­nade in District 1 was fas­ci­nat­ing. As the sun set, crowds blos­somed here and ev­ery­one min­gled. I was re­minded of an Ital­ian passeg­giata as I watched the young and old en­joy the warmth of an evening, so­cial­is­ing, zip­ping past on hover boards, eat­ing street snacks and sip­ping on cof­fee.

An old apart­ment build­ing that has some­how avoided a wreck­ing ball is now filled with quirky cafés. Mini bal­conies lit with fairy lights tempt you to leave the street and come to in­ves­ti­gate. I loved the op­por­tu­nity to sip on a lo­tus tea as I peered over the

bal­cony rail­ing and watched peo­ple be­low em­brace their city.

Along with my deep love for this coun­try and its peo­ple comes my en­thu­si­asm for their food. On my first ever trip to Viet­nam, I had Peta Mathias’s book, Noo­dle Pil­lows, tucked per­ma­nently un­der my arm and used it to source and track down ev­ery quin­tes­sen­tial dish I could in a three-day visit. I never imag­ined then that I would one day re­side in Ho Chi Minh City, free to ex­plore the di­verse and evoca­tive foodie scene.

With so much on of­fer it can be tricky to nav­i­gate, yet the street is the best spot to be­gin any ad­ven­ture. Foot­paths are wonky and filled with strolling pedes­tri­ans, hap­haz­ardly parked mo­tor­bikes and street ven­dors. Ma­noeu­vring around all of these is part of the charm.

The op­pres­sive heat and hu­mid­ity will strike you the mo­ment you ven­ture forth so it’s vi­tal to drink con­stantly – and not just wa­ter. Street ven­dors of­fer a myr­iad de­li­cious fresh op­tions that can boost hydration.

Co­conuts can be or­dered fresh, cracked and spiked with a straw; they are na­ture’s sports drink, full of elec­trolytes, re­fresh­ing and a per­fect en­ergy kick. While me­an­der­ing the al­leys of Ben Thanh Mar­ket I held up a co­conut at a veg­etable stall and ges­tured a de­sire to drink it right away. The friendly ven­dor bor­rowed a cleaver from a neigh­bour­ing stall, mag­i­cally prof­fered a straw from within an ar­ray of plas­tic bags and, voila, an in­stant healthy liq­uid fix. The stall owner beamed as an­other cus­tomer ap­peared, point­ing at my co­conut and re­quest­ing the same. A lo­cal ex­plained to me that the ven­dor felt I had brought her luck for her day. For me, it was con­fir­ma­tion of the ever present, friendly, happy na­ture of the Viet­namese. Smile and en­gage with the lo­cals and they will give in­stantly and gen­er­ously in re­turn.

An­other favourite re­fresh­ment is sugar cane juice. As an ex­pat child in Hong Kong I was fas­ci­nated with the press­ing of sugar cane through a hand-cranked ma­chine to ex­tract the sweet nec­tar.

I’m still in­trigued, and love how a glass of sugar cane juice and fresh lime over ice will re­ju­ve­nate and en­er­gise me. Sugar cane should be pressed to or­der, so perch your­self on a plas­tic stool and en­joy the theatre of it as the cane is rolled through the iron press.

A true Viet­nam ex­pe­ri­ence doesn’t come without try­ing the lo­cal cof­fee. As the world’s num­ber two cof­fee ex­porter, Viet­nam has a cof­fee cul­ture all of its own. I am ad­dicted to this strong, dark brew, tem­pered with a ta­ble­spoon of rich, creamy con­densed milk. I love it served over ice, ca phe sua da, made by drip­ping hot wa­ter over ro­busta roasted beans through a tra­di­tional phin perched del­i­cately over a glass. It re­quires some pa­tience, as the cof­fee drips oh so slowly be­fore con­vert­ing into the dark golden sweet­ness. Don’t be sur­prised to re­ceive a glass of weak iced tea along­side your cof­fee. This is the lo­cal palate cleanser, which will re­fresh you be­fore and after your ca phe and help keep you hy­drated.

Eat­ing in Viet­nam is a col­lab­o­ra­tive, shared ex­pe­ri­ence. The minia­ture ta­bles and tiny stools dot­ted on the streets re­flect the tra­di­tion in the home where fam­i­lies sit on the floor around a shared ta­ble of food with an in­di­vid­ual rice bowl at the ready, to which you add your favourite bits and bobs from the ar­ray in front of you.

Pho (pro­nounced fuh) is the na­tional noo­dle dish. Though dif­fer­ent in each re­gion, the rit­ual re­mains the same. Over­sized bowls brim­ming with broth will be served, and you can add

“Sugar cane should be pressed to or­der, so perch on a stool and en­joy the theatre of it as the cane is rolled through the press.”

your choice of chilli, torn herbs, bean sprouts, fish sauce, lime juice, hoisin or chilli sauce and sea­son­ing pow­der to taste. It’s deeply savoury and fill­ing and can be found at any time of the day and at most cafés in Viet­nam. In Saigon I al­ways head to the Pho Hoa on Pas­teur to re­visit my very first taste of pho – where ta­bles are shared with lo­cals, food is piled high for shar­ing and your bill re­flects what you have cho­sen to con­sume by what is no longer in front of you.

For a healthy snack you can’t go past a rice pa­per roll. Tra­di­tion­ally filled with pork and prawns, packed with fresh herbs and light ver­mi­celli noo­dles, they are an ad­dic­tive quick fix for hunger. Whether you eat them on the street sim­ply dipped in a spicy lime sauce or have them del­i­cately tied with a blanched chive in a pretty café, they are syn­ony­mous with the fresh, fra­grant na­ture of Viet­namese cui­sine. I also love the co­conut milk banh xeo crepe, which is tinged with turmeric, flaky in tex­ture and filled with pork, prawns and crisp sprouts.

If you start the day with a bowl of soup for break­fast, a del­i­cate salad may be the per­fect choice for lunch. Green pa­paya salad em­bod­ies the blend of tex­tures and flavours that epit­o­mises Viet­namese cui­sine. Each café will have its own vari­a­tion, as will each re­gion, yet the tangy un­der-ripe green pa­paya shred­ded finely be­fore be­ing tossed with a sweet-sour dress­ing and topped with crunchy fried shal­lots and mint is the com­mon base.

The An Café in District 2 of­fered a veg­e­tar­ian ver­sion cre­ated with car­rot, green beans, corn and crispy fried tofu. I sank into a brightly coloured sofa po­si­tioned amongst pot­ted plants and sur­rounded by shut­ters and blinds. This was a per­fect oa­sis and the fresh crisp lunch was cathar­tic.

I also had a gor­geous ren­di­tion at KOTO café in the heart of the city,

“The café helps vul­ner­a­ble street kids turn their lives around by train­ing in hos­pi­tal­ity.”

where it was served with sliv­ers of roasted beef and pre­sented in a gor­geous mound topped with whiskers of curled vegeta­bles.

The café of­fers amaz­ing food and has an in­cred­i­ble story. KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One, helps vul­ner­a­ble street kids turn their lives around by train­ing in hos­pi­tal­ity. The restau­rant is run by the trainees, and the food is a fu­sion of tra­di­tional and re­gional with a touch of in­ter­na­tional. I have worked with some of these stu­dents and they are gen­er­ous with their love and their joy at find­ing a world be­yond the grime and crime of their past street lives. Even without know­ing the story around this en­ter­prise, their restau­rants in Saigon and Hanoi are well worth the visit. My favourite dish was the le­mon­grass tofu. It was so good I booked in for a cook­ing class and begged for this dish to be an op­tion. The tofu is scored with a knife be­fore a le­mon­grass, gar­lic and chilli paste is pressed into the grooves and left for the flavours to be ab­sorbed. The re­sult­ing vi­brant dish is ad­dic­tive.

Cook­ing classes are a won­der­ful op­tion for learn­ing about the cui­sine of Viet­nam and can in­spire you to recre­ate the bal­ance of sweet, sour, salty, bit­ter and spicy flavours at home. It’s tricky to wres­tle recipes from pas­sion­ate Viet­namese cooks, whose pride – and of­ten in­come – is firmly at­tached to their fam­ily’s se­cret way of cre­at­ing a dish, so it is heart­en­ing to see a num­ber of cook­ing schools pop­ping up.

Grain, set up by Viet­namese/ Aus­tralian chef Luke Nguyen, is a unique ex­am­ple. Par­tic­i­pants can shop at the in-house mar­ket for in­gre­di­ents be­fore set­ting forth on a de­mys­ti­fy­ing foodie ex­pe­ri­ence, with fish sauce tast­ings and recipes to in­spire and ig­nite the palate.

At KOTO, you can join the head chef in a mar­ket visit or com­mence in the kitchen it­self and learn the art of Viet­namese knife work along with the bal­anc­ing of taste and aes­thet­ics.

The Saigon Cook­ing Class by Hoa Tuc also of­fers a warm at­mos­phere for learn­ing tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary dishes, us­ing Viet­namese kitchen­ware which you can then pur­chase.

From the carts piled high with pickle-filled crispy baguettes, to sticky caramel pork in a clay pot, from the tongue-numb­ing flavour of be­tel leaf, to the cool­ing leaves of wa­ter spinach, this is a lively flavour-filled cui­sine.

The Viet­namese love eat­ing and to see others en­joy it too. It’s a cul­ture all about shar­ing, the nour­ish­ing of re­la­tion­ships over tasty dishes, where fam­i­lies eat to­gether and friend­ships are forged over a mu­tual love of de­li­cious food.

FROM TOP: The streets of Ho Chi Minh City bus­tle with pedal power and mo­tor ve­hi­cles. A woman makes thin rice pa­per, for use in Viet­namese cui­sine. Vanessa Bax­ter at the mar­ket. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Lan­terns on Nguyen Hue at night.

ABOVE LEFT: A street ven­dor pre­pares her food. ABOVE RIGHT: The Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, which winds through the city.

RIGHT FROM TOP: Ce­ramic fig­urines on the Thien Hau tem­ple in Ho Chi Minh City. Rice pa­per rolls – a tasty, healthy snack. Viet­namese cof­fee , served with a side of tea. A seafood grill at a the Ben Thanh night mar­ket, Ho Chi Minh City.

ABOVE: Cook­ing schools are a great way to learn new culi­nary skills and how to cre­ate the flavours of Viet­nam at home. .

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