The translated advice from the elderly Vietnamese man seemed sage enough initially. I had just finished dinner and more than a few shots of rice wine at a colleague’s wedding in the outskirts of Hanoi, and with no Tic Tacs at hand, the betel leaves were my best shot at restoring my breath to its normally heavenly quality.
After chewing the green leaves for mere seconds, a scalding hot and bitter taste spread across my mouth, as if I’d been chewing on a nettle soaked in deep heat. I spat the horrible concoction out, to laughter all around. Chewing betel leaves and areca nuts has long been a Vietnamese tradition, but it’s safe to say I wasn’t about to trade in my Colgate for betel.
When cultures collide things like the betel incident are bound to happen, and there’s plenty about Vietnamese food culture that expats just don’t get, and other things that some simply don’t like. And that’s ok. Now, for those of you anger reading with the phrase “if you don’t like it go home” reverberating around your head, please take a breath, relax and stop chewing so hard on your betel leaves. It’s okay to question or be baffled by parts of other cultures. Doing so is just part of embracing our differences, as long as we do it in a respectful manner. So, without further ado, here are 600 words ragging on Vietnamese food.
Perhaps the expats who know the most about Vietnamese food are those married to a local. Ollie Arci was the English groom at the aforementioned wedding and though he enjoys Vietnamese food, some of his wife Huyen’s favourite dishes don’t cut the mustard for this half-Italian stallion. For one, he told me while Huyen loves tucking into boiled chicken feet, he’s far from a fan of the slimy snack. He told me boiling them leaves the already ugly feet tough and chewy, and he pulled no punches on his feelings: “She loves the chicken feet, I hate the chicken feet.”
Bubble tea, while not uniquely Vietnamese, is another thing the couple disagree on. Ollie told me when he and Huyen were first dating they would often go out to one of Hanoi’s many bubble tea shops for sips of the lumpy broth, much to his confusion. Is it a drink, a sweet soup or dessert? Ollie’s biggest ‘what the food moment’ though, came when his future mother-in-law sent a package containing a raw pig’s womb to the couple. While the package contained roast duck and other treats, Ollie said Huyen was most excited about the womb, telling him it was an expensive cut of meat and a delicacy. The womb was, of course, boiled and served up soon after by Huyen. Ollie tried a few bites but was left underwhelmed at best:“It looked horrible. Like a pinky, white blob of flesh. It didn’t really taste of anything, just like eating an elastic band. Difficult to chew, difficult to swallow, why would you eat it?”
The ubiquity of boiled food also confuses Jennifer Price to no end. The American has been living in Hanoi for more than three years by now, and in almost foreigner-free Dong Da District to boot, so she knows her com rang from her com trang.
Boiled chicken is often cited by foreigners as a strange way the Vietnamese enjoy one of the world’s favourite meats, and Jennifer is no exception. She pointed out to me that Vietnam does spectacular roast duck, with the crispy, tasty birds a hit with any meat lover. So why doesn’t chicken get the same treatment?
Vietnam also has something of a love affair with fruit, and while Jen appreciates this, she told me it frustrates her that fruit is often not ripe. Jennifer explained green fruit is definitely a no go for her: “Why would you serve green plums?”
With Tet holiday fast approaching Jennifer also mentioned chung cake as a local delicacy she hasn’t got on board with. The traditional dish is made of glutinous rice, pork, mung beans and various spices all packed into a square.
Jennifer told me she was a fan of chung cake’s presentation, with the mixture wrapped in green leaves, but the taste left something to be desired: “They look like they should taste good, but they don’t.”
Lost in the Sauce
Daisy Flynn-Piercy, an English expat who has called Hanoi home for three years, would disagree with Jennifer on chung cake. Daisy told me she enjoys the traditional delicacy when she eats it on trips to her partner Duyen’s hometown, but only when it’s fried. She noted that one of Duyen’s aunts regularly comes to family meals with fried chung cake, perhaps explaining why she’s one of the more portly family members. For the most part, Daisy struggled to think of any particular Vietnamese dish she wasn’t a fan of, only able to come up with tiet ga (a kind of blood pudding) and durian as food she couldn’t stomach. She did, however, say she finds a lot of Vietnamese food bland before some sauce is applied to the dish, specifically fish sauce. She told me the simple and popular condiment adds something to almost everything she eats: “You have to have fish sauce”.
Food for Thought
Overall, it seemed the practice of boiling just about everything in Vietnam was the thing that vexed the expats I spoke to the most, unsurprisingly. What did surprise me was what Duyen told me when I asked what she found strangest about British food when she visited England a year ago. She told me she found it strange and a bit sad that corner shop meal deals consisting of sandwiches, a drink and some crisps were a staple of lunch food for British office workers.
“I look forward to going out for lunch with my colleagues and eating together, not alone,” she explained, a salient point considering the UK has just appointed a minister of loneliness.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that who you ate with was much more important than what you ate, and eating alone should be avoided. On your next lunch break you could do worse than going out to eat with some Vietnamese colleagues, even if they are sitting down for a feast of chicken feet.
By: Peter Cowan – Peter is a Northern Irishman who washed up in Hanoi, discovered he couldn’t teach and hasn’t looked back since. He enjoys long walks through rice paddies and is still learning how to dress himself properly.