Vietnam 1: Edibles

My computer’s back up and running! For a mere $80 bucks, and in a mere 24 hours, the kind folks here at this little shop managed to order a new motherboard from Hong Kong and get it installed for me. Now I’m in the shop giving it a test run. What better way than by spamming you with a bunch of the wonderful grub I’ve been living off of for the past month? Actually, perhaps you’d rather read about my massive train trip up and down the length of the country, or the crazy wedding I stopped at, or my insane solo trek through 600km of hill-tribe inhabited mountains? Too bad, I’m not in the mood to write or recount. Tune in next time!

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Tofu and pumpking in peanut sauce; not exactly a representative dish, nor actually a particularly special one, but noteworthy because of the restaurant it came from, KOTO (in Hanoi). Each year, they take a crop of street kids, put them up in a dorm, teach them English, and give them on-the-job training in various restaurant roles. Nice idea.

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Ho Chi Minh City tourist district fare. Yellow coconut curry with killer potatoes; spinach with tofu and mushrooms; tofu with lemongrass and chili. Cost: 130,000 VND, or $6.50

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The market in Dalat had several mock-meat buffets. Some of the stuff was pretty amazing, but a lot of it was pretty lame. Too rich and greasy! Who needs fake meat anyhow?

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Fried spring rolls, the ultimate appetizer.

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Picnic time! Baguette (10 for $1), avocado, and veggie chips.

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Silkworms! Just kidding here – this photo’s from a little cottage silk factory, not from a restaurant. I’m sure they eat these somewhere in Vietnam though. If not, they definitely do in Korea.

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Far and away the best meal of the trip. My mom had given me and Suzie a bit of cash to use on our week together, so on the last night we went balls-to-the-wall. Usually 3 veg dishes was a stretch for the two of us, but here we ordered four. Without even looking at the price! Still came out to less than $10 for the two of us.
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Five color rice.
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Sweet and sour tofu.
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And the winner: sliced eggplant sandwiched between slices of tofu then battered and fried, eaten after dipping in a sweet, thick ginger sauce. Mind boggling. Oily, spicy, sweet, slimy, firm, crunchy, all at once.

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Stopping at a little coffee shop/bakery on the way back to the hostel, we decided to splurge on dessert. Who can turn down a pumpkin muffin? Actually, I would have if I known that it would come out like this: the size of a quarter at the price of $2.  Disappointment of the trip, for sure.

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A new fruit: “milkfruit.” Smooth and glossy on the outside, it almost looks like some sort of medieval wizard orb. The inside is magic indeed: kind of a thick custard, vanilla flavored, nice and sweet. Perfect for dessert or some quick energy.

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Stone-bowl mushroom sautee.

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Wandered around HCMC trying to find veg restaurant listed on google maps, but none were where they were supposed to be. Just as I gave up, I found this place. Jackpot.
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Tofu, rice, peanuts, potatoes. $1.25.

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Shortly after, a little banquet at a friend of a new friend’s house to celebrate a baby’s 1-month birthday. Deep-fried tofu, various spring rolls, deep-fried sweet potatoes, greens, salad.

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I’m sure you all know by now that this is a jackfruit. Yes, I’m obsessed.

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Things got a little ugly once I left the big cities. Here’s one bossman scratching his head in consternation. “You say you don’t want meat, huh?”

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Result: white rice, boiled greens, fried plain tofu.

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Now that’s more like it! I stopped at a little hotel one night. The boss wanted $7.50 for a room, which seems to be just about the lowest price possible in Vietnam. I was prepared to try to talk him down, but then he asked me to sit down to dinner with him and his family. I said “I don’t know, I’m vegetarian.” He said, “It’s all vegetables!” Eggplant curry! His wife even fried up two eggs for me.
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Just what I need after a 700m climb: tribal ladies sitting around selling stuff. But what the hell is it?

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Ah ha! Sticky rice cooked inside bamboo. Dig it out and dip it into a mixture of sesame and salt. Total godsend.

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Found a wedding and a banquet table but missed the food. VietVodka on a nearly empty stomach? Not a good idea. Aftermath will be featured in a later post.

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How’d it take me this long to get to my staple? Pho, i.e. rice noodles. Usually served with beef or chicken, but every so often I managed to wrangle a bit of tofu into the bargain instead. Typically between fifty cents and $1.25 per bowl.
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Always with a nice assortment of vegetables – limes, lemony leaves, lettuce, letc.

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The other staple of countryside vegetarian dining: tofu deep-fried in the morning (or perhaps the previous day) then re-sauteed with tomatoes.

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Sticky rice and spinach dip courtesy of the two dudes next to me.

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“Do you have any vegetarian food?” “No.” “Urhm…do you have noodles?” (Puts down a plate of uncooked noodles in front of me). “Could you put them in soup?” (Gets out package of ramen seasoning?”) “Oh…could you stir fry them then?” (Give me noodles fried with scallions.) “Can I have some of those vegetables?” Phew, now we have a dish!

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Homegrown papayas for fifty cents a piece.

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Breakfast from the morning that I thought I only had seven bucks to last me the next four days: leftover rice from the night before, peanuts from my stash, and a mango. Pretty resourceful, no?

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Tired of noodles and tofu, noodles and tofu, day after day, I finally figured out how to order fried rice. Secret: it’s written “Com Rang” but pronounced “Gum Zanhg.”

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Still came with tofu though.

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Great market find: cold syrupy drink filled with peanuts, black beans, red beans, papaya and coconut jelly, and topped with little crispities. Twenty-five cents, no trash! Why the hell would anyone buy a fifty cent plastic bottle of cola or tea?!

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Atop another mountain pass: (at 2000m, this one was Vietnam’s highest, and it only took me four hours to climb!) – more sticky rice and, behold, a sweet potato with white interior. I’ve seen yellow, gold, orange, and even purple, but this one was new to me. I bought four.

That’s the end of a month of pretty good eats. In the touristy areas – Hanoi, HCMC, Dalat – Vietnam is very much a vegetarian dream land. All sorts of curries, spring rolls, stir-fries, and of course tropical goodies like mangoes, pineapples, milkfruits, and more. Unfortunately, pickings were pretty slim once I got out into the countryside; I don’t know how much of this was due to my absolute lack of knowledge about the names of vegetables and veg dishes, and how much of it was due to a lack of inventiveness on the part of the cooks. Still, no restaurant I stopped at seemed to have much in the way of vegetables in the kitchen. Always some leaves, some cabbage, some tofu and tomatoes, but rarely anything else. A bit of a shame really. A valuable travel lesson though: whenever I arrive in a new country, one of my first priorities needs to be couchsurfing with an experienced vegetarian, whether local or foreigner.

Oh, and more good news: my computer made it through the last hour without blowing up or shutting down. I think 3RR.com is back in business! Thanks for your patience and support in the meanwhile.

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4 Responses to Vietnam 1: Edibles

  1. Chris says:

    Hey asshole, you stole ma spork! And also, yes, sticky rice-in-bamboo is to die for. Watch out for sticky rice with sweet potato in bamboo, and it’s younger sibling, sticky rice with coconut milk in bamboo. You must be getting closer to where I am….

  2. Jeff says:

    Hooray!

  3. mingyulee says:

    Mike!!! you still ALIVE!!!!! 제끼라웃 이메일!