5.45 a.m. at the fish market in Nha Trang, Central Vietnam. I’m sitting at a low wooden table on a tiny blue plastic stool on the sand. Opposite me a woman is smearing three small round blackened pans with pieces of pork fat. Once the fat has sizzled she removes it with wooden chopsticks then throws in some chopped up pieces of squid which are fried until golden on both sides.
The cooking smells are irresistible.
Now she ladles in a thin stream of rice flour batter and swirls it around. When the mixture begins to bubble she covers the pancakes briefly with three small lids, then folds the pancakes in half, grabs a plate and serves them to me with a wide smile and sparkling eyes.
They’re tricky to eat with chopsticks and already a small group of women and children have gathered around to watch me. I’m the only Westerner in sight, especially at this time of the morning. They giggle and point, trying to show me how to eat them. The pancakes (which are absolutely delicious) keep slipping back onto the plate. They become even more slippery when she points to a bowl on the table with a dipping sauce and shows me how to dunk them into it. One of the giggling women leans forward offering me a spoon while another points to a bowl of fresh green leaves and herbs which are meant to accompany the pancakes.
It’s the best meal I’ve had yet on my journey from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi. If I’d breakfasted in the hotel I’d have been offered an airy baguette with jam and butter and a cup of strong robusta coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
At this time of the morning the fish market is bustling. Women in straw-coloured conical hats are quarreling and shouting over circular bamboo trays full of tiny silver fish, sardines, squid and prawns. Nearby a man is sawing a large block of ice which is used to keep the seafood chilled.
The marketplace is the focal point of life in Vietnam. Whether it be in a major city, a small hilltown or by the sea, it’s the busiest part of town and the best place to start any exploration of Vietnamese food.
Fresh ingredients are vital to the Vietnamese and, due to lack of refrigeration, the majority of households shop twice a day at their local market. Some markets – like Ben Thanh in Ho Chi Minh and Trung Tam Thuong Mai Bai Chay in Halong – are under cover, whilst others (like the fish markets at Nha Trang and Hoi An) are exposed to the elements.
No matter what town I visited it was to the markets I headed first and it didn’t take me long to become addicted to the sounds, smells and flavours of these lively places of commerce.
The vitality of the market spills out onto the streets. No matter where you are in Vietnam you’ll come across someone wanting to sell you food, be it an elderly woman carrying a “don ganh” (two baskets slung from each end of a wooden or bamboo pole) or a man pushing a bicycle cart and ringing a little bell to announce his approach, selling freshly cut pieces of fruit (watermelon, pineapple), caramelized popcorn or steaming hot rolls.
But it was the women carrying the “don ganh” (or yoke) who really fascinated me. In their baskets they carry all manner of foods, including fresh custard apples, bright orange persimmons, green and yellow bananas, avocados, baguettes or spring rolls.
More often than not though, they carry a portable kitchen – in one basket sits a charcoal brazier on top of which is a large pot of simmering stock. In the other basket are stacked bowls of noodles, fresh herbs, sliced meat, spoons, bowls and cups. Heavy loads indeed! They stop anywhere and set up shop, a truly inspiring feat to watch. What’s more – you don’t need to find them, they’ll find you. Just stand on a street corner long enough and and someone will offer you something to eat. And let me assure you – it will be delicious!
Another day, not having had time for lunch, I grabbed a couple of dome-shaped pastries “bate gan” from a street stall in Ho Chi Minh City. They turned out to be filled with a tasty minced pork filling enclosed by a light glazed puff pastry. A woman carrying a round silver tray of sticky rice sweets (“banh bo”) came by as I was purchasing the pastries and begged me to buy some. They came in various shapes (triangular, circular and square) and in different coloured layers (bright green and white, purple and white, purple and green). I felt like a kid in a lolly shop (and was obviously an easy target!) and chose three of them. A couple were gelatinous in texture (they’re made with rice flour), not too sweet and really quite satisfying.
Many Western tourists to Vietnam are afraid to try the street food because they are worried about falling ill. I was the only one in a group of 12 who ventured away from the hotel and restaurant food – and the only one who didn’t fall ill! As far as I was concerned the others missed out on a vital opportunity to get to know the heart and soul of the country because it is when you are sitting at one of these stalls that you can begin a conversation with the people.
Even if you dare eat nothing from a street stall in Vietnam, make sure you try a bowl of pho (pronounced “fer”), the fragrant beef noodle soup popular in the south for breakfast and almost a cult in Hanoi. Just to sit and watch the preparation of this soup is poetry – first a sieve full of rice noodles is immersed into hot water, drained and poured into your bowl, then a scattering of white onion slices, some finely chopped red chilli, a few shavings of ginger, a handful of bean sprouts, and then some finely sliced raw beef over the top. Now comes the final flourish – fragrant beef stock poured over the top and sprinkled with freshly ground pepper. Now it’s over to you: add a squeeze or two of fresh lime, a little chilli sauce, garlic sauce or “nuoc mam” (the ubiquitous fish sauce) and for the final flourish, a handful of fragrant green herbs (various mints, coriander, perilla). Hearty yet delicate, beautifully balanced, full of surprising tastes and textures. Cheap (about US$1 per bowl), filling and delicious: “pho” is the perfect introduction to any journey through Vietnam.