Half of the adventure in traveling is sampling local cuisine. This is often a roadblock for me because of all the culinary rules I follow. No bumpy food like octopus or squid tentacles. I can eat squid but no squiggly parts for me. No milk or yogurt or mayo (eww) or butter. Well, a very thin layer of butter on toasted bread is OK. Please make sure the bread is toasted evenly though. Butter soaking in soft spots on the toast blows the entire breakfast, but I digress. When I finally make it to Tibet, I don’t think it’ll be the altitude that kills me but the butter tea. Cheese is ok if it doesn’t crumble or stink like small feet. Fresh coconut juice is awesome but no coconut milk, especially in salty foods like curry or laksa. Definitely no animals that used to make a sound, which basically leaves me with just seafood. Yes, shrimps make noises at the bottom of the ocean but the naked ear usually can’t hear that, so you can throw those shrimps my way. And fish…don’t get me started! I like fish but can’t eat it if there’s still skin showing that I can’t remove. Especially if the scales look snaky. I love a python bag on my shoulder but can’t stomach anything remotely reptilian looking floating around in a soup bowl.
These rules are really tough on the road, especially when requests are lost in translation. I always half expect the waiter to bring out a plate full of squid tentacles in a vat of mayo. But things could be worse if you can’t read this sign below. That’s always my consolation when things go wrong. Things can always be worse, much worse…
But the good news is, for every rule there is an exception. So no meats like beef, chicken or pork but I will eat tripe and gizzards when cooked in certain ways. And believe me, you can always find tripe and chicken liver somewhere around the world. For today, we’ll sample food in Vietnam.
In spite of my peculiarities, I’ve never starved on any of my trips and have only gotten one really bad case of food poisoning. I contracted it in Hanoi and was sidelined for 3 full days as we made our way through Central VN. By the time we arrived in South VN, I was finally human enough to crave food. We wandered into Pho 24, a noodle soup joint in a snazzy part of Ho Chi Minh City. And for the first time in my life I finished a whole bowl of pho. Down to the last drop. I think the heavens even parted and angels sang! That’s what it’s like to enjoy the first real meal after not being able to keep any food down for days. Ever since then, each time I’m in VN I have to stop by a Pho 24 in the hope of experiencing noodle nirvana just once more. There’s a Pho 24 on every block it seems. On my last tour of VN, this chain was launching a reward initiative: buy 5 combo meals (pho + drink) and earn a free motorcycle helmet. Why a helmet and not a free combo meal? Because a helmet law was about to take effect. And because I can now be a walking billboard for this noodle shop:
Especially when you travel around Southeast Asia, you have to wander into local markets and street stalls to get a real sense of the local cuisine. Hawker stands dispensing street food are the best way to enjoy fresh produce, seafood, meat, and exotic fruits. Taste the street food or get yourself invited to someone’s house for true homestyle cooking. Otherwise, the more tourism spreads, the more likely you are only tasting bastardized dishes at fancy restaurants aimed at western travelers. And that’s a real shame. Pop a pepto pill, rub your hands in the antibacterial lotion, check your fears at the door, and point to whatever the local guy next to you is ordering. If the food doesn’t kill you instantly, you will never go back to eating the way you used to.
Beautifully displayed food at a dinner on an overnight junket ride; everything is skillfully carved out of vegetables:
Exotic fruits at a market:
Yours truly chasing down a rambuttan vendor:
I can squat with the best of them, especially for guavas in season:
Vietnamese snacks or junk food:
My two favorite snacks…escargots a la vn…
and crab eggrolls:
My other favorite dish, bun oc (escargot noodle soup)…the spices and herbs are out of this world, but I may be biased:
When I say you have to check your fears at the door, I mean you have to really let go of your paranoia about how the food was prepared and where you sit down to eat. In the moment, I focus on the food and don’t even notice my surroundings until I get home and look at my photos. By then it’s already too late to wonder if the person serving my meal had washed my chopsticks or not. The solution is to bring my own disposable chopsticks at the cost of being eco-unfriendly. But it could be worse, right? What if she didn’t wash her hands at all prior to handling the food? What if that is dirty water where she’s rinsing the bowls that are being handed to me now? And is my food is really being served only a few inches from a dirt floor? This is a photo taken at a very narrow food stall in a wet market alley last November:
And this is an “outdoors cafe” on a side street somewhere in Hanoi…who knew al fresco dining meant sucking up exhaust fumes from the endless motorbikes on the street. And yes, that is unrefrigerated meat behind me. Yes also, you can wash dishes and motorbikes at the same location–how’s that for diversifying your services?
Seriously, do I look worried? I only live once.