Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021
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Keep it under your hat

Vietnam's subtle cuisine is Southeast Asia's best-kept secret

We were talking about food with our guide, Thuyen, in Hanoi. Well, talking about dog actually. Thuyen's family eats dog much the way my mother used to do rump roast on Sundays. In Vietnam, man's best friend goes not for a walk, but to a wok.

"I'd love to eat dog," I lied, "but I understand it's unlucky to do so at the beginning of the month, which this is."

"Oh, no," answered Thuyen. "This isn't the beginning, it's the end -- of the lunar month. It's lucky to eat dog now."

This was one of those impromptu cultural exchanges in which, as a professional gypsy, you have to give a little. There's simply no pooching out on this one. Which is how my wife and I wound up around a big family table in a Vietnamese home in edgy anticipation of canine cuisine. Thuyen watched with amusement as a platter of charbroiled dog meat, daintily sprinkled with fresh coriander, was presented.

With frozen smiles, my wife and I tucked in. The mutt recalled a gamey variation of stewing beef, a tad grisly and with a deeply smoked barbecue flavour. Just when we were groaning with relief at another gastro-adventure under our belts, the nasty bit arrived. It was a steaming bowl of liver, lungs and heart. It reeked as if somebody had just blown an outhouse out of the ground.

In Vietnam, there are other woks on the wild side, too: field mouse, toad, bat and king cobra among the eats. Never, as my old pappy used to tell me, say no to an adventure. On the other hand, the omnivorous approach to cuisine has been under heavy fire with the emergence of species-jumping viruses. SARS is believed to be a result of Cantonese gourmands tucking into civet cats in China's Guangdong province. It seems equally possible that AIDS came from the consumption of chimpanzees in central Africa. What's next?

Happily, the itinerant foodie need not eat the zoo to go adventuring here: Vietnam boasts the raciest, most exciting food in Southeast Asia, even more roundly complex and seductive than the vaunted Thai. Think of impeccable freshness, of magnificent fish and seafood, of senses rocking with lemongrass, chilies, garlic, ginger, coriander and nuac mam, the fermented fish sauce that shows up almost everywhere. I've never found a bite in Toronto to equal the wonders we find in Hanoi, Saigon and the Mekong Delta.

The Vietnamese, tiny people who've trounced invaders from Kublai Khan to Lyndon Johnson, are displaying a huge entrepreneurial streak. They're clearly determined to emerge as Southeast Asia's tourism tigers. Vietnam is leaping to the forefront of 21st-century tourism, establishing air connections from the Chinese border to the Delta, flying modern airbuses to reassure jittery passengers, paving highways to whiz tourists from city centres to seaside resorts and building posh hotels to the standards of business travellers. On the food front, ambitious restauranteurs are showcasing their fantastical cuisine with Western-style ambiance.

At breakfast in Hanoi's Melia Hotel, croissants and omelettes abounded, but the Vietnamese candidate was an addictive chicken congee, the thick rice porridge laced with green onion, shredded chicken, dried pork, fiery red chilies and, of course, nuac mam. And there was pho, the deeply concentrated, basil-infused beef noodle soup beloved to all Vietnamese.

On Halong Bay, one of the scenic highlights of the north, we explored eerie karst formations from a mom-and-pop-run sightseeing boat. Imagine our astonishment when we were given a lunch worthy of a Brittany seafood extravaganza: out came crisp pork-stuffed spring rolls, stir-fried squid, deep-fried flying fish, jumbo shrimp in the shell, a whole crab apiece and morning glory, a Southeast Asian green reminiscent of spinach. The accent for the fish was a deceptively simple, surprisingly sublime meld of salt, pepper and lime juice.

In Hanoi, the easygoing capital where boulangeries and patisseries recall almost a century of French colonial rule, we ate at Nam Phuong (19 Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hanoi; tel: 011-84-4-824-0926), in a former townhouse. Diners spread out in handsomely appointed, softly lit adjoining rooms. The wine list proffered French and California labels at shockingly affordable prices. The sprawling menu rhymed off six preparations of pigeon, seven of squid and 10 of shrimp. Soft-shell crab arrived greaselessly deep-fried in Japanese breadcrumbs, a gossamer, sweet-fleshed crustacean spiked with a drizzle of nuac mam. Jumbo shrimps fried in their shells with black pepper were plump and piquant. When five-spice duck stuffed with pork turned out to be tough as a mule, we were still ahead of the game.

Nam Phuong was a mere warm-up for Emperor (18B Pho Le Thanh Tong, Hanoi; tel: 011-84-4-826-8801), Hanoi's best restaurant. Emperor lives up to its name. We were shown into the lofty courtyard of some vanished monsieur et madame and seated on rattan chairs amid sumptuous tropical greenery. The interiors of the house would charm Somerset Maugham. Jazz, for Hanoi is a big jazz town, floated out into the courtyard.

Seafood Imperial rolls -- spring rolls encrusted in breadcrumbs and richly stuffed with squid, shrimp, crab and lobster -- were wonderful. Tiny, translucent rice pancakes, each presented in its own dish, came sprinkled with grated shrimp and slithered down the throat like oysters. Lobster Imperial, the meat lifted from the shell and whirled in a wok with garlic, onion and ginger, proved there's civilization beyond drawn butter. Eggplant, spooned from a clay pot, was pure velvet. I can't overstate the delicacy of all this.


Our journey took us south to Central Vietnam and Hoi An, one of the few cities to escape the war in which the Pentagon tried -- and failed -- to bomb the country "into the Stone Age." We lunched at Pho Hoi Garden II (38 Nhi Trung Street, Hoi An Town; tel: 011-84-510-864-463). There was a fleet of tourist buses out front, not a good sign.

Pho Hoi Garden II is a tourist restaurant, yes, but what a tourist restaurant. It's the brainchild of entrepreneur Le Ba Truyen, who only a decade ago was peddling ice cream from the back of his only possession -- a bicycle. In an elaborate pavilion resembling some grandiose set from The Last Emperor, we joined 500 other tourists for an 11-course lunch priced at five bucks Canadian.

Dishes were catapulted from the kitchen in the arms of comely young women in shimmering pajama-style uniforms. The first was the omnipresent pho, the noodle soup chock-full of chicken, vegetables and garlic. There were tasty shrimp rolls encased in fried vermicelli strands, tender pork on skewers and tuna baked with saffron in a crock pot. Truyen's favorite is White Rose, a delicate rice-flour rosette stuffed with spiced pork and sprinkled with crisply fried shallots and fish sauce. If this is mass tourism, bring it on.

En route to Saigon, we detoured to the fishing town of Phan Thiet, where the air came scented courtesy of a nuac mam factory. At Phan Thiet, the wharf was abuzz at dawn, when the fishing fleet sailed in with its massive catch of everything that swims in the China Sea. Bales of fish flew through the air onto the docks. Women in conical hats screeched at each other over preferred fishes. Fish mongers bobbed around in circular basket boats peculiar to this corner of Vietnam.

The catch materialized wonderfully at the Victoria Hotel (Km 9 Phu Hai, Phan Thiet; tel: 011-84-66-2962-2824), one of five in a chain of French-run resorts reaching from Hoi An down to Chau Doc on the Delta. Chef Rémi Faubel buys fish at the wharf every morning. When I asked about freshness, he showed me his hotel freezer. It was empty.

Faubel's seafood buffet under the stars is a dazzler. Chicken, beef and pork kebabs provided refuge for ichthyphobes, but the thrill was the parade of swimmers -- grouper, mahi mahi, squids, mussels, clams, crabs, shrimps and best of all, slipper lobsters: these are the succulent crustaceans the Aussies call "bugs," here slapped on the barbie and cooked just-so. We oohed and ahhed again at that simple, sensational dip of salt, pepper and lime juice. And there was wine, a decent Chardonnay at a decent price.

Then on to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon. Anyone whose notion of Vietnam comes from Apocalypse Now is in for a shock. This is Paris with palms, an elegant city of boulevards, parks and gorgeous 19th-century buildings. We ate at Lemongrass (4 Nguyen Thiep Street, Ho Chi Minh City; tel: 011-84-8-822-0496), a stylish room festooned with fresh flowers and candlelight. A musician played a dan tranh, the Vietnamese answer to the zither. Shrimp rolls arrived with a twist: wrapped in lettuce leaves, the flavours of the deep-fried roll of noodles, chopped peanuts and sweet basil came at us in a rush. Shrimps huddled on skewers with sweet peppers and onions. Squid flew in on a cloud of Chinese five-spice. Welcome to bistro, Vietnamese-style.

Saigon's top restraurant is Mandarine (11A Ngo Van Nam, Ho Chi Minh City; tel: 011-84-8-822-9783). Spread over five storeys, this is a relaxed milieu of gracious appointments right down to the old-fashioned sweetness of a violin-and-piano duet. The restaurant is lovely to look at. Teak floors gleamed under us. Rice-paper lanterns glowed overhead. The take on food was classical Vietnamese retooled for the 21st century.

We began with a starter sampler: there was banh, a crisp-and-soft pancake stuffed with shrimp and garnished with sesame seed and chives. Spring rolls came crackling with a wrap of crisp rice vermicelli in the style of Hue, the country's ancient capital. The salad was banana flower, the phallic purple pod of the banana tree cradling the pulp, which had been tossed with grilled beef, shallots, galangal, peanuts, garlic and chilies. It was a knockout.

Mains maintained the pace: fillet of grouper was lightly steamed and drizzled with soy, rice wine and olive oil. Duck Mandarine was crispy-skinned and fork-tender, its sweet-and-sour citrus sauce more intriguing and less cloying than àl'orange. Fried rice showed up in a pineapple shell, studded with scallops and shrimps. Crème caramel of a silken consistency completed an evening of remarkable grace and taste.

At last, we journeyed south into the great Delta, a realm of rice paddies, lagoons and floating markets. We put in at the Victoria Hotel in Can Tho (Cai Khe Ward Can Tho Town; tel: 011-84-71-810-111). The hotel's restaurant, Spices, turns out super Vietnamese. We supped on crackling vegetarian spring rolls dipped in nuac mam; salad of the grapefruit-like pomelo and shredded crab dusted in galangal; pan-fried bass crusted in lemongrass -- fish in a crust of lemongrass might be the best fish you have ever eaten -- and bang xeo, a crèpe of rice and wheat flours stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean curd. The sensations of the Delta flooded into our mouths.

We were on a roll, flying on discovery, but always with that invitation from the wild side. One afternoon, after crawling out of the network of caves that allowed the Viet Cong to maintain an underground war against overwhelming American technology, we encountered a tiny woman selling cobra wine -- yes, with the hooded fang poised to strike in the bottle. We slugged back shots of the amber stuff. It had the bouquet and fruitiness of a rice wine, plus a certain je ne sais quoi -- this must be the cobra. Good thing I've always liked a wine with a bit of a bite.


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