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Beyond Pho

It was sometime this past week that I started to wonder why on earth we chose so many hot places to visit. What would have been so bad about, say, northern Europe? I’m a little tired of feeling sweaty and sticky and, eight months in, have really started to loathe my limited wardrobe. I know, I know, cry you a river. But I do know why I wanted to come to Vietnam. It was all about the food. The damp, chilly winters in Seattle have long fostered our love for a warm bowl of pho, and what’s not to like about a banh mi? It was this article in Bon Appetit that got me thinking about the food beyond those two things, and put Vietnam so firmly onto our itinerary.

When I was in planning mode back in New Zealand, I booked a food tour with the well regarded Hanoi Street Food Tours  and asked the guys for any suggestions along our route before we got to Hanoi. We’ve been following their advice like bread crumbs and they have yet to steer us wrong. In Hue, our first stop, we had banh ep, little rice pancakes with mango and herbs that we wrapped around crunchy cucumbers, lightly pickled diakon and carrots then dipped in a sweet, spicy sauce. We devoured bowls of bun thit nuong, grilled marinated beef over cold vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts and herbs with and a dusting of peanuts. For $1! I mentioned pho earlier, but the noodle soup world here is no one hit wonder. We tried bun bo Hue, a cousin to pho, but spicier with thicker, round rice noodles and tart with lemongrass. On the corner near our hotel was a place that looked like a car repair shop by day but at night tables blossomed on the freshly hosed down floor and people arrived in droves. We investigated and found the most delicious mien ga, or chicken soup with a rich broth that would make any Jewish granny proud, but with glass noodles. Garnished with cilantro and onion, it made everyone in our family very happy.

In Hoi An, a few hours south, the specialty was cao lau, a dish of noodles (traditionally made only here, with the water from one specific well) with thin slices of pork, herbs and a crunchy garnish made from the same noodles, all moistened with a few ladlefuls of savory broth, another $1 wonder. We also tried the Vietnamese version of chicken rice, or com ga, which was delicious (although we all preferred the Hiananese version we had in Singapore) and some fine, drippy banh mi. In fact, we’ve been so busy eating all this other stuff, I have yet to have a bowl of pho! I would be distraught, if I wasn’t planning on doing some serious, ahem, research into pho once we get to Hanoi.

Our street food experiences have been so very good, I’ve been a little less excited by the sit down restaurant meals that are five times as expensive and half as satisfying. We chatted with a retired school teacher in Hue who wondered if we had experienced any digestive issues, and the answer is no. Whether we’ve been the right amount of careful, picking busy places with lots of turnover, or whether we have just developed some iron constitutions, we’ve had nothing to complain about (knock on wood!)

Oh yes, there were some sights to see, too. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty, and though most of the beautiful buildings of the citadel were blown to smithereens either by the French in 1885 or the or the Americans after the Tet Offensive, there was still plenty to keep us busy between meals. Hoi An has a beautiful UNESCO preserved old town from the days when it was a major trading power and is a lovely spot for walking and browsing the many, many shops and cafes. It would make a fantastic cruise ship destination, if the harbor hadn’t silted up in the late 1800’s.

We spent yesterday taking a bike tour around Hoi An, with stops to see rice wine production and to learn the art of paddling one of the round, bamboo basket boats. In the steaming, 90+ degree heat, our sweet young guides amazed us with their habit of covering all their skin to protect it from the sun- hooded sweatshirts with flaps that cover the backs of the hands, hats, gloves, long pants, socks. We’d seen this sort of thing elsewhere around town. Don’t they just melt inside all that? But while we don’t mind a bit of color in the states, to show we’ve been somewhere warm in the cold months or have the leisure to sail or play golf, keeping your skin light here is apparently a big deal and worth a little extra sweat. There’s also a nice beach here, where we spent a few hours today…and got sunburned. Maybe the locals have a point.

So there you have it. All is well, we are cruising right along with another ten days in Vietnam before the grand finale… AFRICA! Stay tuned for the Pho Report from Hanoi!

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