Good Noshing, Vietnam

Exploring a faraway land with knife, fork and open mind.

As I sat on a junk boat in the middle of Ha Long Bay, the tour staff started to bring out plates for our lunch. Some of the plates they served were unfamiliar—little “squid balls” that might be fried, but I can’t tell—and some almost too recognizable fish with its steamed, yellow eye staring up at me. Welcome to Vietnam.

My friend Erin and I embarked on a trip with Ethnic Travel, which touts an authentic cultural experience for tourists. If the goal was to get off the beaten path and avoid major tourist hubs, this appeared to be our program. So as I looked at the steamed eyeball staring at me from my plate, it was apparent we achieved our goal.

Mountains jutted out of the water as our boat sailed on. Erin bit into the fish’s cheek. Our trepidation vanished quickly. The fish, with its perfect combination of ginger and lemon flavor, may have been the best thing we ate the entire trip.

For dessert we devoured fried taro balls, which were sweet and crunchy. I just felt lucky to be able to enjoy it all.

For me, food is half the fun of travel. Museums, hikes, sightseeing and nightlife are fantastic ways to experience a new place or a new culture. Local cuisine, however, is its own special adventure.

An admission: This food lover has an Achilles’ heel. I suffer from a weak stomach. While traveling in Rome several years ago, I got so sick from food poisoning that all I remember of the Vatican was its bathrooms. So when Erin and I decided to meet in Vietnam for a weeklong vacation, I was a bit anxious.

I met with a doctor several weeks before my trip and got some advice: eat only hot food. If the food has been cooked, there is less risk that there will be unfamiliar bacteria that hasn’t been eliminated by the heat. Cold foods, like veggies that have been rinsed off in a sink, are more likely to be holding onto bacteria.

 

EXPLORING EDIBLES
Clockwise from left: Street food in Hanoi; boats docked at Ha Long Bay; catch of the day; cold noodles with shrimp at the Lotte Center in Hanoi; two girls pose in front of a meat stand in Ninh Bính.

 

 

 

 

 

I met with a doctor several weeks before my trip and got some advice: eat only hot food. If the food has been cooked, there is less risk that there will be unfamiliar bacteria that hasn’t been eliminated by the heat. Cold foods, like veggies that have been rinsed off in a sink, are more likely to be holding onto bacteria.

Keeping that in mind, we started sampling … steamed snails that we ate with mystery sauce on a sidewalk in Hanoi, handmade fried spring rolls made by a homestay family near Bai Tu Long Bay. Through it all, I stayed healthy.

I can’t claim, though, to have been as edibly  adventurous as Erin. At one point in our trip we saw a woman cooking balut on a street cart. Balut is a duck egg fertilized and matured to the point where the fetus is partially developed. It is then boiled and eaten whole from the shell.

I couldn’t do it. Erin, however, went for this delicacy, and I took the photos that prove it.

During our tour of the Northern Vietnam countryside, local families or the tour group staff lovingly prepared everything we ate. These meals included large spreads of food like fried spring rolls, clam soup, crab cakes (served inside the crab shells), prawns, squid and mango. If it was delivered hot, I ate it.

Had we visited the large city of Hanoi, chances are we wouldn’t have known what to order or what to try. We also never would have kayaked through an oyster farm or walked through caves in Ha Long Bay.

One night after dinner we went squid fishing. We hooked up a little bioluminescent lure and lowered it up and down in the water until we saw a couple of squids darting past.

 

 

We quickly put a red bucket over our light—turning it red. All the squid suddenly rushed up, and we caught them with a net. I was as stunned as the squid were. Our bounty was served to us the next day for lunch.

On our final night in Vietnam, I decide to break the “hot food only rule” with a bahn mi sandwich. I watched as cold veggies were piled into the baguette along with cooked meat.  

The bread was crispy and warm, and the meat was covered in a sweet sauce. Delicious, although maybe the atmosphere of bustling streets with vendors and lights and hundreds of motor scooters zipping past without regard to pedestrians made it taste so good.

Was that last meal in Vietnam worth the next three days I spent crippled with food poisoning? It was. I guess that’s part of the adventure of travel. And I’d eat that sandwich again to prove it.

 

 

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