Words by Dave, video by Carmen
Class, may I have your attention for today’s lecture.
Vietnam was ruled by the French from the year 1887 to 1954, and in that time, myriad French influences were bestowed on the nation through…
That’s a Pho dish, the national soup of Vietnam, which has been adapted from the French beef stew.
Pho smashes French and Vietnamese culture together in a delicious demonstration of their shared history – it’s a slice of culture that you can eat and experience right now rather than having it shoved down your throat by some textbook.
I’m a history buff, but when I travel I don’t want to just visit memorials and museums to people and events long gone. I want to see the influences of that history in action, and if we look we can always find it.
The best avenue is of course through food. Vietnam has a rich, tumultuous history that has given its cuisine many diverse influences and flavours, and you only have to look below the oil bubbled surface of your Pho soup to taste them.
Exploring Ho Chi Minh with Saigon Street Eats
Keen to find out more about Vietnam, its people, and its food, Carmen and I tagged along on a tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s tastiest morsels run by Saigon Street Eats, which began in a local Pho restaurant.
Phở (pronounced like ‘fur’, but clipped short) is the national dish of Vietnam. Like the debate over whether to put jam or cream on scones first in the UK, this delicious noodle soup can be served plain or with garnishes of lettuce, spring onion and fragrant herbs like basil and mint.
“People in the north of Vietnam don’t like the herbs.” Our guide, Vu, is from the south of the country and says how a person likes their Pho tells you a lot about their background. “I’m from Ho Chi Minh City so I like to load the soup up. It’s good for you. We think it’s like a medicine, especially if you are hung over!”
He tells us that Pho came to prominence in Vietnam around a hundred years ago and has its roots in the consommé soups and beef stews brought by the French and traditional Vietnamese dishes.
The soup’s basic broth is made by roasting and then simmering beef bones and adding spices like cinnamon and star anise to make a cloudy, deeply flavoursome soup stock. Throw in some rice noodles and raw beef fillet (introduced by the French) and you have Pho, eaten at any time of the day or night. It takes around 10 hours to make from scratch, so most people in Vietnam go out for Pho rather than attempt to make it themselves – it’s one of the quintessential street foods in the nation.
Shopping for our picnic spread
We follow Vu out of the restaurant and into a bakery next door where see more French influence with baguettes, pastries and creamy cakes on display. There’s also Chinese influence with bean curd cakes and mooncakes and sticky white buns. We buy some delicacies to eat later – Vu tells us we will be having a picnic at a temple so we are going shopping first.
We pass by a café filled with men, young and old and in between, lounging around on armchairs watching a movie. Meanwhile, in the street, women are working their arses off, unloading trucks and selling goods, hustling and moving.
We pass by a stall that’s selling plantain bananas and other starchy fruits and vegetables. “Women eat these things to keep their strength up as they work,” Vu tells us. “It’s a man’s world here, but the women do most of the work. The women control the money but the men often have their own secret bank account.”
Our next stop is a barbeque joint on a hurried street corner where a girl is marinating pork chops on a grill that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned, ever. “That’s the best sign,” Vu tells us. “Everything else should be cleaned but the grill. That’s for the flavour.”
Vu tells us how the Vietnamese barbeque style has been influence by both China and France, but also how the locals have twisted it to their liking. We buy a thick stack of meaty treats and press on through the traffic.
It’s getting very hot so we stop for a break at a small drink stand where a girl makes us sugar cane juices mixed with kumquat oil and chipped ice. It goes down a treat, and Vu hands us a quarter of a Bánh mì each to keep our strength up. ‘We like to eat a lot in Vietnam. Just little things here and there.” I’m happy to go along with it; the Bánh mì is delightful, a French baguette full of pate, roast pork, carrot, cucumber and coriander -full of crunchy texture and smooth flavour.
Our final stop is a crazy market where locals stop to buy fruit and vegetables or keep driving their scooters through the narrow lane ways and get something on the go from scores of small stalls. It’s crazy, but it works. We grab portions of tofu fried with lemongrass and garlic, tropical fruits, fried doughnut balls, pancakes with dried shrimps and broccoli, and even make time to sip on a freshly cut coconut.
By the time we reach the temple gardens we’re knackered. The place was constructed to honour a Vietnamese military hero who organised an insurrection against the French, who suppressed it but allow the locals to celebrate the man anyway. Under the communist government it became a communal park, and these days it’s a mix of traditions with people releasing caged birds for luck and pretty young women having glamour portraits taken of themselves in Ao Dai, the traditional long dress and trousers of Vietnam.
Vu serves us up the picnic in several courses. First it’s the BBQ pork with noodles and salad, and then the tofu and some stewed vegetables. Then it’s time for dessert with French style bread and butter pudding flavoured with brandy, doughnut balls, cream cakes and the fruit.
The most confronting cultural experience we had was trying durian fruit, regarded as the ‘king of fruits’ by many Asians, and renowned for its overpowering smell and taste. I’ve heard it compared to a drain, or a corpse, or much worse.
Carmen had never had it before so she went first. Blah! She spat it out as Vu and I laughed and tried some ourselves. I think it tastes like burnt onions mixed with chainsaw oil, so I spat mine out. But Vu lapped his up. “You guys like vegemite right?” he asked.
I’m prepared to consign some things to the museum.
Have you ever been on a food tour? What was it like?
What you need to know:
Cost: We did the Pho Trail, a morning tour which was US$55/VND1.22 million per person. You can book your tour here.
When to go: Saigon is hot all year round, and even if it rains it’s usually brief.
How to get there: We were picked up from our accommodation by the team and returned there afterward, so no worries.
Check out our post from the food tour we did in New York City!