I'm finally getting around to posting my original food reminiscence article about Vietnam that was featured in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin last year. This version is about twice as long as what was published, and it features a number of different photos, too. (It also includes my edits and not those of the newspaper.) All of the photos, incidentally, are from the first time I lived in Vietnam.
I’m continually amazed by the vividness of my food memories of Vietnam in 1994. I remember best what struck me then as strange, and fifteen years ago everything in Vietnam seemed strange to me, especially the food.
My first stint in Vietnam lasted one year. Only eight years earlier, Vietnam had embarked on đổi mới (economic renovation) and opened its long-shut doors to naifs like myself. I was to be a volunteer teacher at a college in Biên Hoà, a semi-rural town where no American had lived for nineteen years—not since the U.S. military had abandoned its largest wartime air base—one of only two foreigners living in the entire province. (There had been a third, a man from Australia, but he was deported shortly before my arrival on accusations of spying and consorting with prostitutes.) If I ever felt a need to escape, Ho Chi Minh City was only twenty miles away.
I lived in a converted teachers' lounge between two other offices on campus, and I arranged a “meal plan” with the owner of a campus canteen—Ms. Loan, a hefty, vivacious, enormously caring woman with a tendency to shout when she talked. (She was a widow who lived in a back room with her son, daughter, two adopted children, and a dog that eventually got stolen by thugs working for a dogmeat restaurant.) Her canteen was a patchwork of blue stucco blackened by mildew and water stains, the black gaining on the blue every week, as though someone regularly dipped it in muddy water. The meals she prepared for me for around twenty dollars a month were fantastic, and I was indebted to her for looking after me so well.
In true Vietnamese style, all her meals displayed stunning variety. In addition to white rice there was always canh (a spicy-sour soup whose main ingredients include tomato, pineapple, seafood, tamarind, chilies, and cilantro), boiled or sautéed vegetables (water spinach, Chinese cabbage, long beans, mustard greens, and bitter melon were most common), and a main dish of fish or chicken. And she never forgot dessert—always whatever fruit was in season, served with salt or fish sauce. All this variety and freshness was a different world to me. Suddenly my days started and ended with a plethora of new flavors. In exciting combinations marked by wonderful tastes and textures, I found myself sitting down to fascinatingly complex yet balanced meals: salty, spicy, bitter, sour, and sweet, all on the same table.
As the weeks went by and my enjoyment of Vietnamese food grew, I sometimes worried that I was eating Ms. Loan out of house and home. One day I noticed that the chickens she kept, which ran freely around campus, including inside my classroom while I taught, were missing. When I asked what had happened to them, she chortled like an engine starting up, then shouted to me that I’d eaten them. I felt guilty hearing this, but then I realized that her family had partaken, too. Whereas I had looked upon the chickens almost as pets, she’d raised them all along as food.
After eating dinner in her canteen I’d linger awhile to listen to the summery chorus of crickets and frogs, or practice my Vietnamese, or have long conversations with a teacher who'd moved into the office beside my room. I’d leave only when the mosquitoes grew thick or a group of students, having pooled their scant money, paid Ms. Loan to screech into her banged-up karaoke machine. And when I went to bed, she made me hot tea to keep by my bedside.
There were days when I tired of my routine; on those mornings I’d walk through the campus gate in search of breakfast. I usually headed for a wooden shack nearby that sold French baguettes, coffee, tea, and fresh limeade. (They also sold cigarettes, which the Vietnamese smoke as if they're the staff of life.) The bread, or coffee, or limeade, occasionally teemed with ants, which then crawled up my arms as I attempted to eat or drink around them. It was the kind of situation that would seem intolerable in the U.S., but here, because no one else complained—and because my complaints made people embarrassed—I adjusted to it quickly. By the end of my year there I didn't bother eating around anything.
As the year rolled on I looked farther afield for new experiences, many of which revolved around food. Once, an early morning outing yielded a charming old café on the banks of the Đồng Nai River, where I breakfasted on fried eggs with pepper and cilantro, a warm French baguette, and iced coffee. Unscripted weekends resulted more than once in rowdy bacchanals of warm beer hosed into glasses from kegs, and giant prawns served with pepper and lime juice. On random evenings on the town’s purlieus, it was not uncommon for complete strangers to invite me to join them for casual conversation at a sidewalk bánh xèo (sizzling crepe) eatery.
It was through my Biên Hoà friends, and the weddings, birthdays, death ceremonies, school festivals, and holiday events we attended—and our trips around town, along the Đồng Nai River, and into the remote and deeply rural parts of the province—that I was given an entrée into Vietnam’s food culture. I didn’t always embrace the experience. I never grew to appreciate wine with birds or beetles or bear livers inside the bottle, half-hatched eggs, congealed duck blood, fermented shrimp paste, and so on. But there were moments when my eyes opened to a whole new world that I didn’t realize was within reach and worth reaching for. Those were the times when I succeeded in breaking down barriers inside myself, and approached food more openly, if not always more courageously. I eventually developed a liking for nước chấm—and now make it at home, one of many Vietnamese recipes I regularly whip up; something I never would have done had I refused to expand my horizons.
Of course, expanding my horizons wasn’t entirely a matter of choice. There was no escaping my situation, and I did what was necessary to get by. That included eating unappetizing dishes, and saying yes when I wanted to say no. Now, however, I do have a choice, and I find myself wanting to delve deeper into Vietnam’s rich, often startlingly unique cuisine. And guess what? I like this about myself. I like my newfound passion for food, my ability to eat nearly anything, and I’m grateful to the Vietnamese for helping instill this openness in me.
One of many happy consequences of Vietnam’s new affluence is the spectacular boom of food choices. When I lived in Biên Hoà, taking a bus into Ho Chi Minh City for a rendezvous with a Western menu every couple of months seemed necessary, as if I feared dying without a taste of imported hamburger patty, cheese, pepperoni, and black olives—as if these things were superior to phở, bún chả, bún riêu cua, bánh xèo, mì quảng, or any of Vietnam's hundreds of otherworldly and ubiquitous dishes. In 1995, when a Baskin-Robbins opened on Lê Lợi Street, it was as if Michael Jackson and all his siblings had parachuted into town from glittering zeppelins. City residents would ride their bikes to its corner location and, under the sweltering sun, watch people—mostly foreigners—shovel huge portions of expensive ice cream into their faces.
Today’s world is dramatically different than fifteen years ago, but in Vietnam that relatively short time span is like several eras bundled into one. For good or bad, the changes đổi mới ushered in are nothing short of breathtaking. Quiet auto-less streets, rural pockets of the cities, and many colonial-era buildings have basically disappeared. Since 1994, the populations of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have exploded to the point that the government recently re-instituted its two-child policy. Pollution in both cities has increased to multiple times its 1994 levels. Vietnam’s pursuit of renovation has transformed the natural and social landscape along with the attitudes and ambitions of its people. With good reason the Vietnamese are confident and optimistic about their future.
As the country presses ahead, its cuisine follows. Now that people enjoy greater spending power, and have traveled more and sampled what other countries’ kitchens are producing, many Vietnamese no longer look at food in rigidly customary ways. For most, “having rice in the bowl” is a bygone worry. They’ve begun to envision food as more than just a means to survive. By invoking the richness of their country’s culinary repertoire, and taking the time to rediscover traditional Vietnamese food, they are deepening and expanding the sense of what it means to be Vietnamese in this modern age they’ve ushered in.
If food is a reflection of culture, what more can be said? Vietnam is back on the map and jostling with the cuisines of its more recognized neighbors and its former occupiers. And if Vietnam worries about how to maintain harmony between the sclerotic old ways and the thorny new, perhaps it can look to its burgeoning food scene as a source of belief and inspiration.