Saturday, November 24, 2007

Go-ooo-od Mornin' Vietnam!

Cà Phê Sữa (Cafe Sua Da)
Traditional Vietnamese Coffee & Drip

A week after London I make my way to the warmer climate of Saigon i.e. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. I was excited about the the unfamiliar tastes Vietnam has to offer, and promptly got started with the airport cafe.

Bún Thịt Nướng

Similiar to the chee chong fan of Singapore, Bún thịt nướng is a DIY dish: thin and delicate vermicelli sheets served alongside Vietnamese ham and an assortment of herbs and bean sprouts for you to wrap, roll and dip into Nước Mấm before devouring.

Light and refreshing, it whetted my appetite and prepped my palette for the adventure I was soon to embark on.

Wrap 'n' Roll

Lunch at the Hotel

I decided to check out the hotel grubs, lazy and unconventional, I know. But coming from a 4am flight, I thought I'd take it easy for the rest of the morning, rest up and fuel up before I proceed to cover more ground.

Phở Set In the Works

Phở Set With the Works

Staying true to my course, I had the traditional phở set. To match its hotel setting, the noodles were served with sides of spring rolls, minced pork and shrimp, and the usual trimmings of fragrant herbs and grilled meat served separately to be tipped into the noodles. The verdict? Controlled tastes in a controlled environment.

Roasted Caramelized Beetroot Salad
With Greens & Feta

Apart from traditional Vietnam feed, the restaurant also offers international dishes, and the beetroot salad caught my attention. Now, I had a horrid encounter with beetroot some years back, finding the then simply steamed root so sickeningly sweet it became repulsively bitter. Needless to say I've been strongly turned off by the root ever since, until I read about it in one of Gordon Ramsay's books.

In it, he described the "correct" way to prepare beetroot, by roasting it ever so slowly in a low temperature to bring out the natural sweetness, so that in place of a coying aftertaste is an aromatic caramel flavor.

So, fresh off from my gratifying experience with GR's creations last week, I was ready to take his word for it and place my fate in his hands once again.

For my faith I was rewarded with bursts of delicate sweetness that melted in my mouth, flawlessly paired with salty feta and crunchy walnuts, it was one of the most simple yet satisfying salads I have ever had. Who knew, my best beetroot salad would be had in Vietnam?

Ice Kachang with Lotus Seeds

Offerings at Ben Thanh Market

Come day 2 I made my way to the renowned Ben Thanh Market and was greeted with a kaleidoscope of colors and vast array of shops selling produce, souvenirs and food. I wasn't there for groceries or tourist trinkets, so went straight to business in the food section of the market, where the crowd hung out.

Three quarters
of the stalls sold the similiar dishes in various guises, so I simply picked the one nearest to me, sat down along the narrow table and pointed to the display.

Phở with Gỏi Cuốn

My first taste of authentic pho and spring rolls and I note the subtle differences between this and what we get back home:
  1. Noodles barely fill a quarter of the bowl: back home, it's the main ingredient
  2. An equally big bowl of RAW herbs (basil, mint) and vegs (sprouts and some river plant) served for you to add to the noodles: we don't get any of this at home, probably coz the taste of raw veg and such strong tasting herbs aren't suited to the local tastes. And oh ya, you have to pay for extra veg.
  3. Meat (ham, fresh slices etc) sparsely added: again, back home, there's more of this
  4. Soup is clear but richly flavored with meat bones: back home, it's almost always tom yam. Which seems so wrong now...
I take to the authentic version immediately. I love the crunch and flavor the herbs and sprouts bring to the party, together with the clear soup, the entire bowl was light and refreshing. No wonder the locals snack can on this up to 5 times a day.

The spring roll resembles our home version, comforting to know we got something right.

Curious Crowd

Bánh Bèo

Exploring the rest of the market, I spot a large crowd around a stall selling what I deciphered with my superb Vietnamese, Bánh bèo. I obviously had to try it.

Bánh bèo is a Central Vietnam dessert made of tiny rice flour pancakes or dumplings in
Nước chấm. It was sweet (from the Nước chấm), salty (minced shrimp), savory (lardons), aromatic (parsley and green onions) and bland (dumplings). It was also weird, and great fun to eat.

Mystery Dish

I do not know what this dish is called, or what to make of it. It consists of short noodles (known as mice's tail back home) on a base of fresh veg and topped with a white, sticky cream sauce and dried cuttlefish strips. I have never seen this sold in Singapore, and apart from Ben Thanh, I will not be seeing it sold anywhere else in Ho Chi Minh. Anyone who has any idea please enlighten me.

Breakfast at the Hotel


This dessert I know, the Vietnamese version of Singapore's chendol, a mixture of mung and kidney beans, green and red jelly and tropical fruits in coconut milk and syrup. The main difference between the two cousins? This had lots, and I mean lots of the sweet stuff Vietnamese are so fond of.

Bánh Mì Kẹp Thịt

I leave you with my fav pic of a Bánh mì kẹp thịt, aka Vietnamese baguette, stall. Found in abundance along every street and alley, these stalls provide a quick snack and convenient meal on the go. I was excited every time I saw one, for they are a Lonely Planet trademark of Vietnam, a must see and must try.

Each tiny mobile stall holds a massive selection from Vietnamese pantry, from the filling (various ham and sausages, grilled meat and meatballs, cheese, fried egg, sardine), veg (pickles, carrot, sprout, cucumber, tomatoes, onions) and sauces (pate, mayo, chilli, soy sauce), garnished with coriander and pepper, and packed into a buttered baguette.

Someone once commented that Vietnam baguettes tastes better than their French ancestors. Ludicrous! I hear you cry. Having been to France and tried their baguette, I can hereby vouch for this shocking the-Earth-is-not-flat proclamation. The baguettes here are out of this world!

The simple bread here is fit for the heavens, freshly made throughout the day and kept warm in a portable oven. The shell is thin and crisp to the bite, and the bread soft, light and airy. Paired with the fresh ingredients and soaking the delish marinates, the
Bánh mì is the definitive Vietnamese food item every visitor to Vietnam must have a go at, no two ways about it.

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