After a few amazing days in Hong Kong, studded with local markets and unreal meals we hopped on a plane and headed to Vietnam. Vietnam has a very rich culinary history with many ties to Chinese, Cambodian and French cuisine. Due to influences from French colonization in the late 19th century, there are many foods in Vietnam that are uncommon in neighboring Asian countries, most notably is the abundance and availability of amazing coffee. Ca phe sua da (literally translated to “coffee milk ice”) is a common drink anytime of the day in Vietnam. Strong in smell and intense in flavor, it is made from dark roasted, coarse ground, thick coffee sometimes infused with chicory that slowly drips from a small aluminum single portion pot, into a small glass and is then mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Once it is finished brewing, the consumer stirs the coffee and condensed milk to form a tan colored, velvety textured beverage that is then poured over a glass of ice and consumed in one gulp… at least that’s how we drank it, this stuff is too delicious to sip.
Interestingly enough, pork pate and fresh, crusty baguette, akin to the kind you would find in the French country side, are prevalent all over Vietnam. Even at street side stalls selling Bahn Mi, a cheap and incredibly delicious sandwich that has more incarnations than the artist formerly known as Prince. The most common ingredients however are pork pate, fresh cucumber, shredded carrot lightly pickled in rice wine vinegar, fresh cilantro sprigs, sliced green onion and the option of a fried egg. All stuffed in a fresh baguette and wrapped up in newspaper for less than $2 US. Bahn Mi is a quick and easy meal any time of the day, but most delicious when consumed late night after several Tiger beers.
Vietnam is most well known for Pho, (pronounced [fa]) a noodle soup made with piping hot broth, noodles, thinly shaved beef and an assortment of vegetable and herb garnishes (US $1.50-2.50). Beef Pho (Pho Bo) is most common but chicken Pho (Pho Ga) also often available, however not commonly at the same place. In Vietnam most restaurants that specialize in a regional dish will only serve one item, either beef pho or chicken pho, this is especially true in rural regions. Again the idea of doing one thing very well is placed in higher regard than doing many things half way.
Perhaps most impressive is the abundance and freshness of the seafood. With 3260 km of coastline, Vietnam is studded with costal villages, towns and cities and is one of the largest seafood producers and exporters in the world along with Thailand and Indonesia. As with most cuisine in Vietnam, seafood is very regional and there was little seafood to be found in Hanoi (our first stop) so we decided to head for the coast. We rented a couple of motorcycles and headed east to Ha Long Bay, a world heritage site on the northwest corner of the Golf of Tonkin, in the South China Sea.
We arrive in Ha Long Bay around sunset, after the 5 hour ride from Hanoi. That was to be the first stretch of an over 2000km ride we would make over the next 7 days, from Hanoi in the north of Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south, before heading to Cambodia. We could see the monstrous karsts made of eroded limestone that Ha Long Bay is famous for miles before we got to the city. The home stretch was very typical of seaside towns; a long winding two lane road hugging the coast for miles with quick glimpses of harbors and passing boats between the swaying palm trees
We checked into the hotel then hit the streets looking for something local and fresh. We passed restaurant after restaurant, illuminated with neon lights boasting massive fish tanks piled on top of each other and stacked to the ceiling. Each one offering fresh, live seafood of an almost incomprehensible amount. Even after a decade in the restaurant industry cooking in professional kitchens, there were numerous fish, crustaceans, mollusks, bivalves and cephalopods I’ve never seen or heard of, needless to say I was enthralled.
We came across a large corner restaurant with floor to ceiling windows and a sweeping street side patio, the obligatory fish tanks in the window with a chalk board of the daily availabilities… the tables in this temple of seafood were draped in white table cloths, wine glasses place at each setting, and service staff dressed in red coats with gold trim. Another Asian over-the-top dining shrine. We peruse the underwater offerings, which all sounded delicious but the sheer size of the room and the lack of patrons made it seem empty. The streets were ablaze with weekending Vietnamese from Hanoi and around, and this place should have been packed… clearly there is a reason it wasn’t teeming with locals like a few of the more laid-back restaurants on the strip, so we opt to keep looking. We turned around and headed back for the street and directly across the road, on the opposite corner, was a small restaurant (and I use the term restaurant very loosely) with a few Rubbermaid buckets outside, each with a fish tank air orator and a large table of unrefrigerated shellfish, complete with buzzing flies and all. It looked like a complete dive, with bare light bulbs dangling from extension chords pinned to the makeshift ceiling covered in blue and green tarps and miniature plastic chairs at miniature plastic tables…exactly our type of place. We do a quick gut-check and head over.
We cross the road and I snap a few photos of the shellfish while Lucas asks for the menu. He comes over to me after conversing with the shirtless man who I assume is either the owner, or a local fisherman… or both, and explains that there isn’t really a menu, you just pick your live seafood from one of the buckets, they weigh it on a scale and send it to the cook to prepare on a single wok in the middle of the restaurant. We peruse the selection for a few moments pondering our options and select some small shrimp and a couple blue swimmer crabs. The shrimp were going to be grilled and the crabs to be prepared with tamarind and chili paste. We are escorted to a table that’s surface was barely 2 feet off the ground and were sat on plastic chairs so small I could have easily licked my own knee caps. We both fiddled and adjusted our legs trying futilely to get comfortable at the table, we finally opt to kick our legs out sideways and use the table more as an arm rest than an eating platform. They bring us over two large Tiger beers and we snack on some skin-on salted peanuts while we await our first course.
As we sip on our beers, basking in the evening air as steady stream of accompaniments and sauces arrive at the table. Massive plates of fresh basil, cilantro and mint, small dishes of chili sauce and containers of fish sauce. Small side plates arrive with a salt and pepper mixture, accompanied by miniature limes and diced chilies, meant to be mixed with the salt and pepper to create a dipping paste for seafood. By the time this procession of accouterment had been delivered and arranged on the table its time for another round of beers and our first plate of grilled shrimp. Fresh off the grill the shrimp were served plain with little to no seasoning or frills, they are small, sweet and delicious… they don’t last long, we order another round right away. We dig in peeling off the shells, eating the tails and sucking the juice out of the heads. I look over and see the cook about to prepare our crabs so I head over with my camera to get a couple of shots and steal his recipe. He fires up the burner, flames rocketing up the sides of the iron wok clearing the rim by a few inches from the burner underneath. A few tablespoons of oil heats up in a matter of seconds, and he tosses in the crabs to “toast “ them, the sweet aroma of roasted crustacean shells fills the air immediately, like when you roast lobster shells in the oven to make bisque, and my mouth begins to water. He strains them out and drains the shells on paper towel. Then one by one he tosses in lemongrass, fresh chili peppers, chopped garlic, diced shallots and a slab of tamarind paste. He sweats this out for a few minutes then adds a bit of water to create a sauce. He tastes for seasoning like a true master who knows the flavor profile of his sauce every step of the way, and adds some sugar, chili paste, fish sauce and salt, allowing it to simmer a minute then tasting again. Once satisfied with the flavor of his sauce he adds the toasted crab back in and tosses until well coated, scooping it out onto a plate to serve.
We head back to the table and prepare ourselves to devour this small mountain of crab. The flavor at first was sweet and tangy, typical of tamarind but with a deeper sweetness than usual from the caramelization of the natural sugars in the wok. The salinity of the crab meat almost creating the perfect balance, it was delicious but something was missing. About 3 or 4 bites in we start to feel the heat, creeping on in a subtle way to balance out the sweetness and acidity and round out the 4 pillars of Asian cuisine. Hot sour salty and sweet, the base of almost every dish in Asia, and this was no exception. This time the sourness commonly created by citrus like lime or orange was replaced by the tart bite of tamarind, a truly unique and instantly recognizable flavor.
That meal was Luc’s first time trying tamarind, and a few days later on our trip we were in another costal town called Quy Nhon and I purchased some fresh tamarind in the pod from a street vendor, showing Luc how its grown, cleaned and eaten. We sat on the street popping the tender flesh out of the brittle shell and we both started talking about that epic meal in Hanoi and how it solidified our steadfast dining rule for the rest of the trip… only eat in restaurants with small plastic chairs.