Before we ever left on this journey I said that Vietnam was the place I was most interested in seeing on this trip. That was partly because I haven't traveled much in Southeast Asia and partly because of our military history there. Fathers of my friends were there in unhappier times, and understandably, they have no desire to take a vacation in their former area of operations. Arriving in Vietnam, I felt lucky to be entering under peaceful circumstances, but of course war never really leaves a place, or its people. The Vietnamese call it "The American War" and there are plenty of scars that run deep for all involved, some of which are catalogued in the War Remnants Museum we visited in Ho Chi Minh City, or still Saigon to some. Simply put, it is the kind of place you leave in silence and might never want to go back to.
War history dominates much of the talk about Vietnam and I've said enough about it for this post, but what does their story look like now? We began our trip in Hanoi, sticking to the Old Quarter since we only had a few days there. We found some of what we've seen before on this trip in other countries: sidewalks as parking lots, speeding motorbikes that may or may not be aiming to hit us, and many made-in-China knock-off souvenirs. But we also found genuine hospitality, intriguing pagoda architecture and charming French influence in Hanoi (and in Ho Chi Minh City, too).
Our favorite experience in Hanoi was taking a cooking class through our hotel's restaurant (The Red Bean in the La Siesta Hotel). We've seen signs for cooking classes in nearly every country we've been to on this trip but decided to try the class in Vietnam specifically because our restaurant was so excellent, from the quality of the ingredients to the artful presentation. Our chef for the class, Tuan, had tons of energy and was clearly excited about showing us how to make some of his favorite dishes: pho bo, spring rolls and pork meatballs. Tuan took us to the wholesale food market where I can honestly say the only items I could take home and use without extensive recipe research were some of the spices - cinnamon and star anise. But these sticks of cinnamon were unlike those little twigs in America. They were practically logs of sweet spice, wide as a wine bottle and not nearly as expensive as we're used to. The other food items in the market weren't easily identifiable, but Tuan pointed them out as dried mushrooms, dried shark fin and fried river worm cakes, to name a few of the less than appetizing (to me anyway). Even some of the fruit was difficult to identify. Dragon fruit's less than pretty outer skin housed my favorite find on the market tour, with sweet, white flesh and a bright magenta inner skin. We saw a lot of another oddly-shaped (to our eyes) fruit that was only used as an offering for Buddha - it was not for any of us to eat. It was called Buddha's hand, should you need a reminder not to eat it. Tuan wound quickly through the maze of stalls and vendors, cutting open fruit for us to try and pointing out live snakes and turtles that would later become soup.
Back at the restaurant we began making spring rolls, figuring out which side of the delicate rice paper to set face down, then filling it with the veggies we had cut earlier. The trick, Tuan told us, is to fry them twice - the second time just before serving. He gave us many other tips, all with a passion and delight for his native cuisine that would put a celebrity chef to shame.
We found this same delight on a motorbike food tour in Ho Chi Minh City, recommended to us by the Olmsted scholars living there (who were also kind enough to put us up for several nights - thanks guys!). This tour paired each guest with a motorbike driver, zipping us around the city to five street food stops. It's daunting enough if you've never ridden on a motorbike or motorcycle before, but add in the seemingly chaotic traffic and a college kid as your driver, and the experience could be harrowing. But it wasn't. All of our drivers were confident and safe, and by the time we arrived at the first stop, I was able to actually look around and enjoy the view (and release my white-knuckle grip of the little handle on the back of the bike). Every stop was a small restaurant, with seating that spilled out onto the sidewalk and locals crammed together on tiny plastic stools. We tried all kinds of delicious local favorites - their version of pizza, lettuce wraps, spring rolls, and ice cream.
But two of the menu items were unforgettable for varied reasons. The first, raw oysters steeped in soy sauce and a gob or two of wasabi. Not terribly inventive if you think about it, but it definitely was something I'd never seen before. Our guides got a kick out of each of our reactions, faces turning red, eyes watering, and almost immediately reaching for the Vietnamese antidote - a raw green onion - which surprisingly helped. The second and least favorite item on the tour was duck egg, called balut. This was one of the things the guides called a "challenge" and I had to agree with them. The eggs seemed to be soft boiled, and we were instructed to gently crack open the top of the shell and create a small hole at the top. When I removed the shell, I saw why they said to be gentle. Inside were tiny feathers and a baby duck beginning to form, something that I never care to see again in my eggs. With much hesitation I tried what remained of the yolk and nothing else, preferring to leave the feathers to more adventurous diners. This challenge aside, I found Vietnam, its cuisine and its people more welcoming than I would have ever thought possible. But next time I'll leave the balut be.