Food Rules

  • Our delicious soup consisting of squid, shrimp, vegetables, noodles and pinapple from “The Lunch Lady.”
  • A meal in for the evening (a hamburger from the local bakery, bubble tea and instant noodles).
  • These are the types of alleys where the restaurants we typically go to are found.
  • The bakery across the street from our guest house. The owner speaks English and gives us little tips about living in Sai Gon when we visit, which for me is every day.
  • Justin tries to eat the duck egg-fetus.
  • A buffet we had in Cambodia with every type of Asian food imaginable.
  • “Hot pot” a type of do-it-yourself stew where you choose what ingredients you want from an array of goat meat, intestine, okra, greens and noodles.

Today is the first time I had a really unfortunate experience with food. I was feeling cocky and went to a random restaurant in the alley near our guest house alone. I ordered, or at least thought I ordered, a bowl of rice and chicken, but I what I received was a bowl of porridge with various cow entrails, dried blood and a mysterious black meat. I politely ate at the rice porridge but really could not do the intestine. The waiter at the restaurant seemed confused as to why, but I did not stick around to explain and quickly went to my favorite coffee shop down the street to get something to wash down the unpleasantness.

Food has definitely been a constant theme throughout my travels through Sai Gon, Viet Nam and larger Indo-China, but it is almost always more positive than it has been today. (Two of my friends in the program also thought today would be a good day to try hard boiled duck fetus and chicken feet.)

Obviously, the prevalence of food makes sense. You need to eat no matter where you are, but the past two months have been more than making sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. In the States, I never really think about eating. I usually eat at my home. I know what I like and occasionally I will get creative and invite other people over, but for the most part it’s nothing fancy. It’s usually wheat-based, with lots of vegetables, and some milk or bean protein.

Here, this rather simplistic prescription has been turned completely on its head. I do not have access to a kitchen. (My home is more a hotel room than an apartment.) I had no idea what I liked when I first got here and I still don’t really know what most things are called. Finding foods that are good and that I enjoy is not some horrible struggle, but it is definitely something that I have to think of constantly.

Most days I will spend about $7 or 140,000 dong on food. This consists of a breakfast of bahn mi (bread) with eggs, cucumber and pork, a lunch of rice or noodles, a dinner of the same, and two to three cups of coffee throughout the day. I have found that, at least living with our roommates, it is hard to get away from noodle soups. Of course, there is pho, but there are also a whole assortment of similar tasting soups that have slightly differing styles of noodles. Each dish the Vietnamese assert are completely different from one another, but to most Americans I think they would seem, at the very least, closely related.

When we do succeed in escaping the noodle soups, a daily trial on my part, there are fried noodles (which I particularly like), simple rice dishes with beef, chicken or fish, spring roles, Vietnamese egg pancakes (which are nothing like American ones) and fried snails with rice crackers (another personal favorite). No matter what the dish, a healthy helping of various greens, many we would never think to eat in the West, are served along with fish sauce, limes and chilis. Pork and beef are by far the most common meats, but fish and chicken are close seconds. Meat is pretty much in everything so good luck trying to be a vegetarian here. I once ordered rice and tofu and it had a beef meatball hidden in it.

Another reason food is such a prevalent part of my trip so far is that it is everywhere. You would be hard pressed to find a street that doesn’t have at least one vendor, usually a woman, selling fruit, noodles or drinks. (That’s another thing, the fruit smoothies are amazing here.) These informal food merchants sell such a variety of quality, cheap snacks it is impossible not to try a whole host of new things. My favorite food outing to one of these folks has been to  “The Lunch Lady”, a small pho stand on the boarder between District One and the Binh Thanh District that has become internationally famous after a visit by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Despite being nearly impossible to find in the back of a winding alley, the small shop was packed with backpackers and tourists in the little red plastic stools that are so ubiquitous in Saigon.

Food is a powerful force in Viet Nam. Meals are often humble but served with much more meaning that in the States. The act of eating plays a central role in most religious holidays and ceremonies and thousands of people in Ho Chi Minh City make a living off of preparing their grandparents secret recipes for pho, bun, bahn and my for their neighbors.   Personally, I think I’ve felt the most connected to Vietnamese culture while sharing food with both our new friends from here and my fellow Loyolans.