Vietnam is a nation of snackaholics. Go down any street or alley and you will find neighborhood markets or makeshift food stands hawking Vietnamese junk food. And by junk food I mean steaming hot, fresh made, homemade noodles, rice crepes, soups, desserts, and anything your heart desires. From morning till night there are snackers trolling for food.


Even back in the days before the emergence of the prosperous new middle class, the Vietnamese lived to eat as much as they ate to live. On my first trip back to VN in 1993, before the US lifted its trade embargo, I witnessed heartbreaking poverty on the streets of Hanoi. There was hustle without the bustle that we see now in present day VN; life happened in slower motion. I will never forget the woman, squatting in a wet market, who pined for my dirty Keds sneakers. If I could that day I would have given her the clothes off my back and the shoes she coveted. The guilt I felt of being a lucky Viet Kieu at that moment was jolting, but nothing surprised me more than how much life still revolved around food for them.


I remember watching a group of day laborers gathering in a circle in a small courtyard for lunch. Each man pulled out a multi-tiered, tin, cylindrical lunch box, and each of the stackable trays was full of something hot. They passed the trays around and everyone got to taste a bit of it. You might say it was a sort of potluck lunch, Vietnamese style. I can’t tell you if that was the only or the biggest meal of the day, but they relished the food, and to a pair of foreign eyes it seemed like an incredible banquet for a midday break. Their sandals were torn and their pants looked unwashed, but they ate well, I thought to myself, much better than some of my ramen meals as a grad student on a budget. OK, you busted me…I wasn’t exactly a starving student, but if there was a pair of expensive shoes I had to have (who said you shouldn’t look cute while snoozing through a contracts class) then that month saw more PBJ sandwiches than usual. 


The pictures you see above are some of this snack food I’m talking about. You can spot the banh cuon, which is a rice crepe that can be eaten with gio (steamed beef sausage) or fried tofu, with the usual sliced cucumbers, cilantro, blanched bean sprouts, and of course nuoc cham (diluted fish sauce). Sometimes the crepes are filled with ground pork and mushrooms.  The circular white rice cakes are banh beo, topped with mung bean paste, ground dried shrimps, and grilled green onions. Again, we also eat this with nuoc cham. But you know at Lily’s Cafe, a meal of snack food isn’t a real meal unless you also have something wet to go with the dry.  On this day it’s canh bong, a soup, in a light broth, full of carrots, mushrooms, chicken, kohlrabi, cilantro, and pork rinds (weird, I know, but it works if you can eat meat).

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