Our affair with Vietnamese food began a few months ago in Sydney. Miss Saigon in Balmain East serves food that is not only perfect for Brian’s diabetes, but so yummy that we ate there three times during our weeklong stay. Like any good Mills and Boon, this love affair didn’t start auspiciously. I wanted the fresh spring rolls with roasted duck, vermicelli and fresh salad. Two large objects arrived at the table and we looked at them with distaste. I’ve been trying to find a delicate way to describe them, but truly, they looked like turds in condoms. Fortunately we were starving, because nothing else could have persuaded us to taste them. They were delicious, as was the chicken with onion and ginger sauce, the delicate rice and everything else we tried from the menu. I was told by Auckland Vietnamese that the food in Sydney has become “Aussified”, and that the real thing was even better. So treating Singapore restaurants as a training run, we hit Hanoi with the intention of eating like the locals. The locals, however, seem to squat on kindy-sized stools on the pavement, and we’re too old, stiff and wary to try that. Our first night we found “69″ in a converted house in the Old Quarter. More fresh spring rolls for me, deep fried ones for Brian, followed by a couple of local beef and pork dishes and fresh vegetables. That’s the thing about Vietnamese food, it’s so darned fresh it’s practically still growing; the vegetables are colourful and full of flavour and texture, the salads are crunchy crisp. The northern food is delicate, the spices subtle – the flavour comes from masses of fresh herbs.
Cha Ca La Vong is in a rickety old house, up a set of stairs like a ship’s ladder. It’s been run by the same family for generations. They thrust a card at us stating that they only served one thing – cha ca, or grilled fish – and brought us a couple of local beers, then bowls of noodles, herbs, peanuts and a suspect looking sauce. This was followed by a charcoal burner bearing a battered little frying pan sizzling with pieces of fish. Into that they threw handfuls of what we took to be more herbs and then mimed how we were to put it all together in our tiny serving bowls when the fish was cooked. This was one of the truly great meals, and the fish, far from getting overcooked, became more delicious as it got crisper. Yellow grease ran down our chins. We didn’t care. Climbing down a ship’s ladder after Hanoi beer, however, is not to be recommended if you’re over 17. On our first full day in Hue, in the middle of the procession of temples, palaces and pagodas, we passed through the edge of a local market. I love food markets and look for them wherever we go, but our guide became nervous whenever we wanted to deviate from the script, and told us that we wouldn’t like that market, it was just for locals – much better tourist markets on offer. No thanks. But we found a restaurant run by a deaf family which, from the graffiti on the walls, appears to have hosted every tourist in Vietnam. Do-it-yourself spring rolls, wonderful noodles and satays. Far too much to eat. The next day we set out on our own, the only foreigners in the district. People stared then smiled, children waved excitedly, everyone was happy to stop and pose for a photo. We found the market again after encounters with local “factories” making everything from ironware to headstones, and some chooks on the back of a bike. Not long for this world, I fear, as they were hauled out and inspected for plumpness.
Getting into the food market proper involved stepping over an open drain with the help of a laughing policeman. His gestures said, “Are you sure you want to go in there?” I did. If you’re not very tall, it’s a wonderful experience being able to see in a crowded place. I’m generally looking at the backs of people’s necks. Yesterday I was Irene van Dyk. Tiny women offered their most exotic wares encouraging us to smell or taste. The fruit, the vegetables, the nuts, the herbs, the fish…mmm…anyone for a jellyfish entree? We were beckoned from stall to stall, our arrival heralded by laughter and shouts. Some of the women were ancient and as small as dolls. They preened for the camera, crowding round afterwards to admire their photos. Their hands were as tiny and delicate as those of ten-year-olds (yes, Lockwood, you were probably right, but you still shouldn’t have said it!). Calls of warning as I went to step down into the meat section. Pools of blood and water lay everywhere. They watched hopefully. I pantomimed Victorian horror. Shrieks of laughter, and an encore on demand for those who’d missed the first performance. Our visit seemed to be the most entertaining event of the week. It was a bit like being a rock star. And the best food market ever. Today we had more roll-your-own spring rolls for lunch and chatted with an entertaining ex-maths teacher who runs a simple eatery on the road between Da Nang and Hoi An. The country has changed so much, he said. He thinks it’s better: no more war – at the moment. With thousands of years of conflict behind them, you can understand the wariness. There are still land mines here. There’s also optimism, and tourists are providing welcome dollars to a struggling economy. Tourism’s still a bit ragged round the edges, but I sort of hope it never gets too smooth. A certain charm would be lost. In the meantime, the locals are warm and welcoming, and the food is sublime. You just might want to avoid “International” restaurants catering for tourists. Oh, and strange little vegetarian restaurants if you’re with an Irishman who hates tofu and is also trying to avoid carbohydrates, and therefore rice and noodles