Hitchhiking Vietnam
life in vietnam
Culinary Tour
a soup stall There's a reason you can find a Vietnamese restaurant on practically every corner in any large city in the US - Vietnamese food is fantastic. The country boasts some 480 traditional dishes. Since there must be at least as many Vietnamese recipe books on the market, I'm going to stick to the non-traditional dishes...

But first, my all-time favorite. Nothing beats a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup first thing in the morning (the Vietnamese consider it a breakfast meal). Soup carts are everywhere and a large bowl costs around fifty cents.

I had 428 bowls of soup while I was in Vietnam.

"The grisly menu hung in plain view from the awning of the cart: a rubbery yellow chicken with a hook thrust through the gash in its throat and a nondescript slab of raw meat, indistinguishable but for the bulging white-rimmed eyes that stared through a cloud of hovering flies. The young man behind the wheeled counter worked methodically, handling raw meat and crumpled bills with equal indifference. Steam from the cauldron of bubbling broth caressed his bare chest and a long finger of ash balanced precariously from the end of the cigarette that hung from his lower lip.

I wiggled a finger in the direction of the beef. With a barely discernible nod, he scooped a fistful of limp white noodles into a long-handled strainer and sunk it into the broth. Within seconds it emerged, hot and glistening, to tumble into chipped porcelain bowls. Nimble fingers chose several sprigs from a nearby pompom of onion shoots and reduced them to confetti in a blur of fingertips and flashing steel. He hacked narrow strips from the slab of flyblown beef, tossed them in and followed up with two heaping teaspoons of MSG. A ladleful of rich broth flowed around the buried noodles, melting the salty crystals and turning the dark red beef an earthy shade of brown."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Now don't get me wrong, I love dogs. The one time in my life I got engaged I asked for a puppy instead of a ring. But I've learned the hard way (twice bit by rabid dogs) that third-world mutts and my Frisbee-obsessed golden retriever are not the same species. A stereotypical third world dog is an object about the size of a toaster oven with short, dun-colored hair, pointy ears, and a moth-eaten, curly-cue tail. It emits an endless series of shrill yaps and slinks around behind you to feint at your bare ankles. Generally you end up backed into a corner, sending foolish little kicks in its direction and looking ridiculous. Eventually even the most die-hard animal lover comes across one or two specimens that look ripe for the cooking pot. I certainly did...

I have walked into the kitchen of expensive Vietnamese restaurants and felt cockroaches crunching underfoot. Just because the kitchen is hidden doesn't mean that it is clean.

Make sure you know the price of the food you are ordering. If you don't negotiate up front then it is culturally expected that you pay what the owner asks. The same goes for cyclo rides.

The heaping teaspoons of white crystals going into your soup is msg. Before you panic, check out the latest studies on msg - apparently it isn't nearly as bad for your health as previously claimed. Msg allergies are also much rarer than people think.

After several weeks in-country there is nothing in the world you want more than a big bowl of spaghetti with homemade sauce. The ketchup-rice-noodle concoctions at the local cafes just won't cut it anymore. What to do? Most questhouses will allow you to cook in their kitchen if you ask nicely and bring your own ingredients. It would be polite to allow them to sample the meal.

Vietnamese chocolate. It looks brown, smells like chocolate, and sometimes even comes wrapped in a piece of silver foil. Don't be fooled. This is one of those cases where it may look like a duck, waddle like a duck, and even quack like a duck... but it isn't a duck. It's a piece of brown, compressed sawdust wrapped in foil.

One can of coke costs more than a liter of hard liquor. It also costs more than a beer and about as much as two bowls of soup.

The French left behind a railroad, a bunch of ruins... and baguettes. Crispy loaves, chewy white on the inside and golden brown on the outside. They cost about ten cents. If they're more than a few hours old they drop to half price. After a day they are resold to be fried in the marketplace. Small mobile sandwich carts will fill them with cucumbers, runny butter, shredded carrots and an unidentifiable pate for a few more cents.

Rice wine is not wine. It is 15% by volume ethanol. In rural areas it is usually homemade and served in an ancient plastic coke bottle. It causes the hangover from Hell.

Some soup shops advertise by sending teenage boys out with two wooden sticks that they tap together in a rhythmic pattern. You may order soup from them and it will be delivered. The pattern - short-short/short-short/long-long - is the same throughout Vietnam.

dogmeat - tit cho - is a delicacy and quite expensive. Nobody is going to slip it into your soup without telling you.

Here are a few other recipes to tempt you...

Blood Soup

Note: The blood must be fresh or it won't pour or mix properly.
  • 1 cup fresh blood
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 cup chopped pig intestines
  • (optional) chopped peanuts

Prepare half a bowl of chopped pig fat or pig intestines. In a separate container decant one cup of pure (warm) blood. Add an equal amount of warm water. Mix gently. Pour immediately over pig fat and stir gently with a chopstick. Chopped peanuts may be sprinkled over the top.

Set bowl aside. In a cooler climate it will coagulate within minutes. Once it has achieved the consistency of jello then it is ready to eat.