Savoring the Bounty of Vietnam
By Taylor Holliday
April 10, 2005

It is 5 in the morning. The seaside town of Nha Trang is dark yet bustling, the beachfront street dotted with groups of people exercising in unison, fishing boats bobbing in time behind them. Your carriage, or more precisely your man-powered cyclo, whisks you past it all and deposits you at the fish market, where a sea of Vietnamese women in conical hats unload, clean and auction off their giant tuna, sea bass, swordfish and crabs.

They pay you little mind, except the ones who line the street outside, their soup pots boiling, their rice cakes steaming, their faces smiling. A septuagenarian ushers you to one of her stools, so low it barely hovers over the ground, offering a freshly griddled rice cake and a bowl of spiced fish sauce to dunk it in. The man crouching next to you translates a bit and mentions that he has a sister in Louisiana. It's unlike any place you've ever been or any breakfast you've ever eaten, and it's divine. So you move on to the next sidewalk chef, eagerly anticipating whatever new experience she has to offer.

Vietnam is becoming a country that people travel to for the food. Those who live to eat know that Vietnamese cuisine ranks up there with the best of them. Witness the increasingly high profile of Vietnamese restaurants such as the Slanted Door in San Francisco, whose Charles Phan won the James Beard Foundation award for best chef in California last year. Or Bao 111, an East Village up-and-comer whose chef, Michael Huynh, is one of the celebrated chefs leading students from the Culinary Institute of America on a cooks' tour of the country this month, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the end of the war.

More and more luxury-tour operators run culinary trips to Vietnam as well, with stops at restaurants, street stalls, markets and cooking schools from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Hoi An to Hanoi. Mouth-watering tours are offered by...Artisans of Leisure, with a private 16-day food tour of Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore for $6,880 a person, double occupancy, without air fare; (800) 214-8144; www.artisansofleisure.com.

...Some people prefer to earn their food epiphanies the hard way, knowing that great pho tastes even better with the added thrill of finding it yourself. What my husband, Craig, and I wanted when we went to Vietnam in January was a do-it-yourself culinary tour we could shape to our own tastes, interests and schedule. And we wanted it at a fraction of the cost of a hand-held tour.

It's not such a tall order to plan your own culinary immersion, using Web sites such as www.eGullet.org, where, in a Vietnam forum, food fans lead each other to the country's most authentic, nontouristy restaurants and dishes (such as bun cha, a grilled-pork soup seldom found in the United States but, by consensus of many on the site, "one of Hanoi's tastiest offerings").

And as far as virtual guides go, you could not ask for a better one than Noodlepie (www.noodlepie.typepad.com), where a British blogger who goes by the name Pieman is diligently eating and reporting his way through Ho Chi Minh City's market stalls and street food. His cheeky musings and plentiful photographs are a terrific primer on the "scoff & swill in Saigon." (For example, here's Pieman on pho: "Vietnam's national dish, a belchworthy beef broth, belongs in scuzzy shacks, floors littered with broken chopsticks and cheap napkins, and not the poncey tables of nouvelle cuisine, restaurants with chamber music or the 'ethnic' section of the Hilton breakfast buffet.") Noodlepie also has links to the local English-language food press and to helpful Web sites such as Elephantguide.com, serving expats in Vietnam.

First stop on our itinerary: the food mecca of Ho Chi Minh City - Ben Thanh Market. Diving into the maze of kitchenware and clothing, we surfaced among densely packed food stalls overflowing with colorful spices, vegetables, fish, meat and miles and miles of who knows what. Exhilarating, it nonetheless stopped us in our tracks as we got to the restaurant stalls. Queasy from jet lag and the heat, not to mention the sound and velocity of the city's streets, we found that Ben Thanh's endless array of unrecognizable foodstuffs, its overwhelming smell of the raw and the cooked and its armies of aggressive vendors ("Madame, you look, you buy?") made for sensory overload.

Perhaps it's better to wade in slowly. At Quan An Ngon, a restaurant at 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, the owner has rounded up some of the best purveyors of street food under the roof of one lovely colonial villa. Around the perimeter of the dining room, each cook prepares her own specialty in a charcoal brazier or bubbling wok. The difference here is nice, clean tables instead of the usual foot-high stools on the sidewalk surrounded by the detritus of those who ate before. Serious eaters in this country insist that the best food is found at street stops or no-frills restaurants. But most visitors will have to work their way up to that. While the price may be double what you would pay on the street, five good dishes and three beers here will set you back only about $10.

There's no culture shock either at a chain of shops called Pho 24 (one at 5 Nguyen Thiep), so named because of the 24 ingredients found in its version of this sophisticated street food. Pho isn't usually served in such fancy surroundings - minimalist modern with Vietnamese lanterns, fresh flowers, sparkling-clean tableware - but even Pieman ranks it the top pho in Saigon. A star-anise-inflected broth is ladled over rice noodles, strips of beef and green onions and served with a salad of Asian basil and coriander, chilies, onions and bean sprouts, which are to be tossed liberally into the soup along with a squeeze of lime and a touch of chili and hoisin sauces. In the opinion of many, pho's exquisite mingling of tastes and textures makes it the premier noodle soup on the planet. Two very fine bowls here cost just $3.

The privately run, three-year-old Vietnam Cookery Center is a great place to begin adding Vietnamese to your own repertory. You must pay cash for the class a day in advance - and brave another one of many death-defying taxi rides you'll take in this country of car-scooter-bicycle chaos - but the hassle is well worth it. First you learn about the Vietnamese kitchen and the three impetuous kitchen gods (an image of them above the stove is "to bring luckiness and happiness, not to make cooking better") before making your own delicious meal under the direction of Nguyen Xuan Khuong, the chef.

Under a thatched-roof oasis, we each had our own bamboo work station and personal gas burner, and all of us prepared our own meals - including green papaya salad, fried spring rolls, clay-pot caramel pork, coconut rice, sour clam soup, and nuoc cham, the all-important fish-sauce condiment with chili and lime. With only us and a honeymooning Australian couple as students, we got plenty of attention from Chef Nguyen and his assistant. Then they sent us on our way with a recipe booklet rich with the history and culture of Vietnamese cuisine. The half-day class is $30 including lunch.

A short $40 flight up the coast is the Hawaii-like bay of Nha Trang and the country's most luxurious Vietnamese-style beach resort, the Ana Mandara. Among the many draws is David Thai's Vietnamese-fusion food, where a traditional clay pot of pork ribs is made even richer with the addition of wine, and the grilled pork of a rice-vermicelli dish is replaced by grilled beef-wrapped prawns. A boat person who grew up in France and returned to Vietnam a top-tier chef, the worldly Mr. Thai leads a cooking class as well as tours of Nha Trang's best pho shops and restaurants.

We took his three-hour tour of three city markets ($35), beginning with the riverside fish market. As the cyclo drivers made their last push over the bridge and dropped us on the other side, the sun was just coming up, the sky streaked pink and blue beyond the blue fishing boats docked nearby. The freshly caught fish, arrayed on every inch of the market's concrete floor and spilling down the street, ranged from finger-sized anchovies to tuna that dwarfed the women selling and buying them. Here we snacked on a very unfishy banh mi (a baguette filled with barbecue pork and cucumber).

Then it was on to the quintessential main market, where every imaginable vegetable, fruit, flower, meat and live animal competed for our attention with street-food vendors offering irresistible concoctions at every turn. Mr. Thai translated each foreign item, then bought us and the two others with us - a Swedish mother and daughter - a bunch of litchis, showing us how to bite right through the red spiky skin and extract the fruit with our teeth.

Finally, Mr. Thai parked us at a market pho stall for the most divine version we'd ever sampled, washed down with, for us, the defining glass of iced Vietnamese coffee - strong, sweet and thick with condensed milk. Whether they truly were the best didn't matter. This was our personal pinnacle, where the people and the place and the food came together to plunge us into the ecstasy of simply living. (Another great option here is to join the locals as they grill marinated beef and oversized prawns on their own individual charcoal grills at Lac Canh Restaurant, 44 Nguyen Binh Khiem.)

A short flight up the coast is Da Nang and China Beach and the picturesque town of Hoi An, evoking the past in its Chinese and French architecture, the present in its made-to-order tailor shops, and both in its cooking schools.

There we met up with Ms. Vy, as she calls herself, a third-generation restaurateur and food mandarin who teaches both evening demonstration classes ($10 with a multicourse dinner) and occasional daytime hands-on classes. All business, with exceptional Aussie English, she imparts a lot of knowledge in a short time. Not that she's without humor. Describing the importance of rice, she said, "The wife is rice, and the girlfriend is noodle soup, so the wife must feed her husband rice three times a day so he doesn't go out for noodles."

Ms. Vy is particularly good on the health and medicinal qualities of Vietnamese food and its essential yin-yang character. The Vietnamese diet is 70 to 80 percent carbs, she said. And there was not an overweight Vietnamese in sight, we noticed. Passing a profusion of herbs and exotic vegetables around the table where 16 mostly Australian tourists sat enraptured, she then demonstrated dishes including fresh spring rolls - allowing us to roll our own - and fish grilled in banana leaf.

The similarly young and likably irreverent Dinh Van Hai runs the Red Bridge Cooking School. The half-day class includes a short but informative tour of the market, a 25-minute boat ride down the Hoi An River to the lovely open-air cooking school, a tour of the garden and a very hands-on cooking lesson. As Mr. Hai shows you how to make your own rice paper for spring rolls from scratch, or fry your own banh xeo (a turmeric-spiced rice-batter crepe filled with shrimp and bean sprouts), or carve your own plate decorations from cucumbers and tomatoes, you'll think, No way can we do that ourselves. And then you will. Absurdly underpriced, the class is $13 including a multicourse lunch prepared by the kitchen.

We hopped in a cab for the short drive to Cua Dai Beach and the amazing crabs at Quan Nhan (9 Thanh Tay). The Russian couple who shared our taxi were heading to the dining room of a luxury beach resort and looked a bit bemused when we tumbled out at this roadside shack. I admit to a moment of doubt myself as we entered the dark, rough-hewn room with almost as many Buddhist altars as stainless-steel tables, and a rooster crowing somewhere in the back. All was well, though, when the beautiful proprietor greeted us warmly and began presenting the catch of the day for our inspection. After letting the little monsters crawl on the floor to prove their freshness, she returned them, tamed by an indefinable, sweet and earthy sauce. Our crabs, prawns and bucket of beer totaled $25 - no doubt triple the locals' price, but a bargain to us.

Next it was on to Hanoi, the home of pho, where they prepare it without the added zing of veggies and herbs. There's plenty of zing, however, at Highway 4 (5 Hang Tre), which serves traditional food and liquor to Hanoi's burgeoning class of yuppies and hipsters. The menu ranges from spicy satay frogs' legs to Mekong Delta crocodile and beyond. The drink menu is similarly adventurous, with dozens of different flavors of ruou, a rice liquor infused with fruits and herbs and the occasional gecko or snake (don't miss the giant bottled cobras). With a kick somewhere between sake and grappa, ruou has medicinal qualities promising to cure what ails you. Our favorites were the herby Bo Sa Pa ("designed by our 100-year-old medicine man in Sa Pa") and the sweet Young Sticky Rice, each running well under $1 a glass.

At the heart of this Euro-tinged city lies the colonial hotel jewel the Sofitel Metropole (15 Ngo Quyen), where the French chef and cookbook author Didier Corlou reigns over several first-class restaurants. The Metropole's cooking class, however, was by far the most expensive ($50; $55 on weekends) and the most disappointing we tried. There were no other students, so after being greeted by Mr. Corlou, we were in the hands of an apologetic assistant who spoke no English (or French) for our market tour and demonstration class.

The smallish 19-12 Market is definitely worth a visit (some items there, such as whole dog, need no explanation), but if we hadn't already toured enough markets to know our rau ram from our galangal and our banana flower from our dragon fruit, it would have been highly frustrating. Later, watching the instructor as she demonstrated several dishes in silence, it was painful indeed when Mr. Corlou swept through the kitchen speaking fluent English to other visitors.

Unless you can verify that the instructor speaks your language, it's better to skip the class and head directly for Mr. Corlou's Hanoi Street lunch buffet at the Metropole's Spices Garden restaurant, where for a bargain $13 you can sample a bit of dozens of dishes, some traditional, some tweaked to great effect with nouvelle cuisine flourishes, such as "fried smoked soft-shell crab with five savors and grilled noodles" and "suckling pig cooked in caramel and wild pepper."

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, we had one bit of unfinished business to take care of on our final day in Vietnam - conquering the Ben Thanh Market beast that had set us on our heels during our first hours in the country.

During our final hours, we returned, knowing that when the vendors approached, we were ready to buy: crackled-ceramic serving dishes, long-handled noodle strainers, bags of red-pepper powder. We were also ready to eat. And sure enough, after all we had seen and learned, the great market was now a temple of delights, the foodstuffs familiar, the smells enticing, the restaurant stalls beckoning. We felt right at home as we cruised confidently through the stalls, chatting with the cooks, checking out their display cases and bubbling pots, looking for that last memory-making meal.

We finally settled on Stall No. 1082, which specializes in bun thit nuong - my favorite dish when I arrived, and after this rendition, remaining so as I left. Delectably spiced grilled pork sits on top of cold rice vermicelli, lettuce and bean sprouts, topped with peanuts, cucumber, daikon, carrot, basil and mint and doused with heavily chili-infused fish sauce.

Like Vietnam itself, the perfect balance of yin and yang.

TAYLOR HOLLIDAY, who lives in Nashville, writes often about travel and the arts.