Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where's the beef?!?

It will shock everyone reading this, I'm sure, to learn that that my initial motivation for visiting Vietnam was to eat soup. A close second priority was eating baguette sandwiches. Vietnam is a country rich with history and culture, some of which is poignantly entwined with that of the U.S. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people have emigrated to various communities in the United States and brought a delicious culinary tradition along with them. In cities I have been happy to call home, most recently Portland, little Vietnamese noodle and/or sandwich shops are prolific. I spent a great deal of my free time over the past two years occupying corner tables of these spots with a book and a steaming bowl of noodle soup accented with various cuts of beef, or perhaps a pig knuckle or two. Naturally, I figured that if the native cuisine could be so enjoyable in America it would be more so on it's home turf. I also assumed it would be everywhere. Back home of course I had to trek over to the Vietnamese area of town to get my fix. In Vietnam I would have the geographical advantage of always being in the Vietnamese area of town. Score! Right...?

Not exactly. It was a persistent and annoying theme of my two weeks in Vietnam to be searching far and wide for something interesting to eat. I'm always willing to tough out hunger until I find the perfect meal, but it started to get ridiculous after a while. In Thailand food is everywhere! There is no end to the variety of new and interesting things to eat. Vietnam started out decidedly less exciting. I would set out to find a meal and instead of spending my time narrowing down the vast selection, I would have to walk further and further just to find a roadside stand serving up anything at all. By the time something came up I would generally give it a try, not wanting to risk walking even further down the maze of alley ways searching for food that might not be there. The crushing part of this picture is that the version of Pho Bo, the Vietnamese dish most widely represented in America, I would find never lived up to what I am accustomed to. Recreations of Pho Bo - beef noodle soup - in America are usually adorned with a variety of beef cuts including but not limited to flank, eye of round, fatty brisket and my personal favorite: tripe. All of this in a rich meaty broth, served with a side plate of bean sprouts and various herbs to garnish with. In the homeland, the best I received was often watery with stringy shavings of unidentifiable beef trimmings, no garnishes and nary a morsel of tripe. I had a few classic, "where's the beef?" moments. My expectations smashed, I would move on to the next, hoping it would be better. Perhaps I built things up too much in my head before arriving. My initial image of Vietnamese food in Vietnam may look depressing, but what kind of blog post would this be if I weren't able to put some sort of positive spin on the situation. Am I not the same person who can look back fondly on two years of capping twelve hour work days by washing dishes late into the night? There's got to be a silver lining, even if you have to work with the scouring pad a little to find it.

The longing left by a few disappointing food finds created unique opportunity for me to be dazzled by some unexpected discoveries. Thailand was monumental, but too easy. Vietnam proved to be more difficult but ultimately more rewarding at the same time. The first milestone was in Sapa, a mountain resort town way in the north. It was my first real stop in the country after four rugged days of bus travel (see previous post). Sapa had way too many "western themed" restaurants and even what was touted as local cuisine seemed over priced and underwhelming. That is until I found the food market. I love walking through Asian versions of what we would call a Farmer's Market in America. Endless rows of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meats. The meats especially are something to behold. Far from the pristine and packaged versions we are used to, Asian markets usually have entire carcasses on display and overflowing bins of offal. It's a truly unabashed and unashamed display of carnivorous glory and what I love about it most is that it's totally normal. There is no cultural stigma involved with enjoying meat and accepting what it is and where it comes from. No one is afraid or finicky about eating what nature has provided. Nothing gets wasted and the eating experience is richer and more fulfilling as a result. In the market's equivalent of a food court, there were numerous vendors preparing a version of chicken soup that seemed custom fit to me, specifically. Egg laying hens, which are also used for meat in Asia, always have a few eggs still in production when slaughtered. It amounts to nothing more than a yolk without white or shell, that is extracted along with all the other innards. The soup I had came garnished with a few of these yolks lightly boiled along with the noodles, deeply flavored broth, shredded meat and fresh herbs. Truly unforgettable!

In Hue, an ancient capital city that was horribly bombed during the Vietnam war I walked with a few other people for a while through staggering heat and humidity to track down a noodle stall that was marked on a tourist map we had been given. Not sure what to expect, we found a roadside stall that didn't look like much, but was the only thing there. We opted in, and while waiting for the soup to arrive I noticed the bowl of quail eggs on the table along with the usual suspects of chilis and fish sauce. There was also something wrapped in a banana leaf. Next, I realized what all the hype was over. Three old ladies were crouching around a pot of boiling broth cutting rice noodles by hand from a fresh made dough. This amounted to the best Vietnamese soup I've had to date, hands down. Fresh, toothsome rice noodles in a light fish broth, garnished with quail eggs I peeled myself at the table and a fine ground pork pate, which is the gift that was hiding inside the banana leaves. There are so many different attitudes and mentalities that go into preparing food for others, but as I've noted before there are elements of pride and passion that can't be acted out. They're either real or not there at all. Watching those ladies chip away noodles - which they do night after night for the masses of local folks who were lining up as I sipped steaming soup in 90 degree heat - I knew I was witnessing undeniable pride in action. It's a common ingredient in great food no matter what or where you are in the world.

There were others as well. Also in Hue, I stumbled upon a stand serving slow simmered beef and rice soup. I had some along with the water from an enormous coconut while losing half my weight in perspiration. How the locals eat hot soup in that heat regularly is beyond me. The gaggle of ladies sitting nearby mistook my sweating for inability to handle the spiciness, and ran over to fan me off, laughing incessantly the whole time. It's difficult to fathom how stupid I looked sweating out that soup quicker than I could eat it while hoisting a basketball sized coconut to my lips every so often. No matter how hard I try not to look like a tourist, there are moments like this one where I fail miserably. In Hoi An, I finally found the baguette sandwiches I covet so much. I went back daily and carried one to my favorite sugar cane juice vendor right along the river and would sit there for a while, escaping the heat and excessive commercialism. All of this was prelude to Ho Chi Minh City - aka Saigon - where I sadly stayed for only one day. As it turns out, Saigon is the answer to the title question. It's all there! The soup, the sandwiches and much more are lining the streets of HCMC, with endless variety and opportunity to eat. I indulged in as much as I could with limited time. I ate fresh steamed snails with black pepper and lime, and enjoyed embryonic duck eggs and Tiger Beer while talking to a man who moved from Saigon to Texas after the war, but was back visiting family. He left because the country wasn't safe for members of the South Vietnamese Army back then. Things are different now, though. America and Vietnam established diplomatic relations in 1995, and although there is still justified animosity concerning the atrocities commited, people I met embrace Americans with open arms. I was approached by numerous people both young and old over two weeks there who wanted to practice their English and learn about America. They all hope to travel there some day, and hope for more Americans to visit their country. I was surprised at first, because other travelers had given me mixed reviews of how they had ben received in Vietnam. Getting a visa to visit was considerably more difficult than entering other countries in the region. All the drama leading up to my actual arrival set the stage for an awkward stay, but it stands to reason that sometimes an arduous journey offers a more satisfying reward. The hidden culinary gems I found far exceeded my expectations even if the day to day dining did not. In the same respect, people I met and spoke with more than made up for the visa application frustrations and bumpy bus rides. I departed Vietnam already plotting the route for my next visit, whenever that may be.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bad Luck Buses

I was beginning to wonder if I would make it to a suitable computer for updating this here blog before I lost track of what to write about. I've finally made it to my hostel in Hanoi which thankfully has computers free to use. They are lined up against a wall about a half an inch thick, with a jack-hammer operating continuously on the other side. Delightful at 7:00 AM after an all night bus ride while I wait for my reserved bed to become available. No time like the present to bang out this post, the banging mere inches away from me acting as a constant inspiration to transcribe my fondest travel memories via keyboard.

It's been a long week of exploration and travel exclusively by bus, which is often the cheapest option. Aside from comforting the budget, traveling by bus offers spectacular views, the opportunity to meet new people, mingle with the locals and an overall experience that flying or even the train if it's available cannot always provide. As the saying goes though, you get what you pay for. This cliche can be interpreted in a few different manners, and all of them are now crystal clear to me.

It's hazy at this point what my exact line of reasoning was when I decided to forgo seeing Phonsavan and Vientiane in central Laos in exchange for moving north instead and crossing the border into Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. It had something to do with efficiency I think. Look at a map and you'll see that starting Vietnam there would allow me to move southward exclusively, no retracing my steps. There was also something about getting off the normally traversed path in Laos and having an adventure. I did the research and knew full well that it would take four days to reach Sapa, but I don't think I really understood at the time what that meant. Live and learn...right? I hoped on a local bus in Luang Prabang headed for Oudomaxai and got my first taste of what was in store over the next few days.

Let me provide a little background information. Most of the buses I took on this voyage were actually "mini-buses" but we managed to cram in the same amount of people that would fit on a typical school bus. This means that little stools are put in the aisle for people to sit on and when you - a westerner - think the bus is a full as could possibly be, there is actually room for about four more people, give or take a baby or chicken. Also, Laos people like to spit. Not in the bus or on each other. No, nothing like that at all. Just on the ground all of the time. I'm not sure what the rationale is behind this, but just about everyone does it regardless of age or gender. It seems the further north I traveled the more frequent the spitting and more vehement the pre-spit throat clearing became. Don't ask...I just thought this was a phenomenon worth mentioning. The buses have scheduled start and end points but that is hardly the full picture. Leaving or arriving on time is not guaranteed or even usual. The bus will also make many impromptu stops to pick up people who flag it down, grab cargo and bags of raw meat from villages and deposit them in others, and take smoking/spitting breaks. There is always someone in addition to the driver who I like to call the facilitator. He/she checks tickets, directs people where to sit and generally takes care of business. Despite my inability to understand anything the facilitators were saying, they were always a big help.

The ride from Luang Prabang to Oudomaxai was long, hot and uneventful. It took about six hours and we were packed in kind of tight. I remember thinking to myself that this was not so bad. If the full four days was going to be like this, then no problem! Things got interesting, though. After a good night's sleep in the finest hotel Oudomaxai has to offer I boarded an early bus to Mung Khua. That's the town where you catch the "border-run" bus into Vietnam. It was comical how many people we crammed in this bus. I always wondered what the secret to clown cars is. How do they fit all those big shoes and red noses in one vehicle. Low and behold, there's no trick to it. You just suck it in and slam the door. This trip was only three hours. Fast! With a whole day to relax in Mung Khua, I explored a bit and met some other adventurous travelers who were making the border run. I was still thinking how easy it was all going down until the following morning.

The bus from Mung Khua to Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam leaves at 5:30 AM, and you need to catch a ferry across a small river first. I had discussed with some other people I met in town that it would be better safe than sorry to arrive at the river early so as to not miss the bus. I was stunned to find at around 4:30 AM that I was trapped inside my hotel. Getting out the front door was not so tough. I just had to unlock it, and chuckled to myself while doing so how funny it would have been to miss the bus on account of being locked in the hotel. The pad locked front gate laughed last, though. It took me about ten minutes of frantic pacing to accept that the only way out was scaling the wall. I found some boxes to climb on and made my getaway. My rush down to the water front was all for naught. I arrived along with about ten other people to find no ferry present. We waited, unsure if wading across the river was going to be necessary. There was a glimmer of hope around 5:15 AM when we heard the distant sounds of throat clearing and spitting on the opposite bank. Who was this person in the shadows? Was it the ferry operator? A few moments later a boat lit up and met us for the short trip across. The bus was waiting and the journey began. The two previous bus rides were merely a warm up for this one. The road from Mung Khua to Tay Trang at the Laos border is not paved at all. It's in a constant state of construction with little to no progress being made. It seems as though there are a bunch of steam shovels and trucks just pushing dirt around. We never traveled at more than 20 mph and often stopped and waited for up to an hour while dirt was moved from one pile to another. It took an hour or so to check our visas at the border and then on to Dien Bien Phu. A total of 100 km took about ten hours. Lovely! I shared a hotel room with some people I met on the bus and we all went out for some well deserved beers and dinner. We had made it to Vietnam, finally. There was one more leg to my journey, however. The fourth day was spent much like the third on a bus to Sapa, a beautiful mountain resort town in North Vietnam. The road there from Dien Bien Phu is also merely under construction and the ride that day took thirteen hours. We left at 6:00 AM and arrived in Sapa after dark.

In the end I got the adventure I was looking for at a cost of four days of uncomfortable travel. I met some interesting people and indeed mingled with the locals in some small towns that not too many tourists wander through. As I spoke with other travelers about where they had been and what they had been doing, I started to worry a little if I was using my time wisely. I met people doing interesting treks in the mountains, riding motorbikes from Hanoi to Saigon, and spending months at a time in single countries. Me...I'm simply exploring a bit and eating as much local food as I can. Seems to pale in comparison sometimes. My worries were put to rest, though thinking about this: When I was in Oudomaxai that night I was looking for dinner. The food in Laos had not really been blowing me away, especially after experiencing all that Chiang Mai had to offer. There's lots and lots of grilled meat in street stalls, most of it leathery and tough. That's just how they do it there, I guess. With all restaurants in town closed that night, I tucked in for some more chewy meat at the bus station which seemed to be the only spot near my hotel with some action that night. I pointed at the chicken, and the lovely lady nodded in approval. I sat down and watched as she put together a simple bowl of soup. I caught something that made me smile from ear to ear. She was dropping in a few herbs and seasoning the broth before delivering it to my table and she gave the soup a little taste, then adjusted it properly. You can't fake pride like that, especially if you're unaware that someone is watching. Young cooks may wonder why chefs demand every dish to be tasted before serving, even though they are repeated hundreds of times a night. If you really care about the product you are putting out, then you shouldn't have to ask why. It just means that you care. I had dinner that night made by someone who cares. It was a beyond simple bowl of chicken soup, no frills, made with a stringy stewing hen. The broth was clear, flavorful and perfect. Moments like that make me realize that simply being here is an experience, no matter how I choose to spend my time. No amount of bad luck bus rides can overshadow life enriching moments from experiencing diverse cultures and places or just having a perfect bowl of soup, made by someone who cares.