Seven young Vietnamese boys and girls in bright, yellow T-shirts smiled at us in the lobby of our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. They were the guides for our group of 7—two families—straining at the leash to embark on a gastronomic journey of Vietnamese cuisine. When they learnt we were from India, one of the boys piped up, “Mera naam Ye hai.” When I replied in Hindi, he grinned,“Hindi nahin maloom.” (I do not know Hindi). It promised to be an interesting evening.
We started by giving Van, our chief guide, a problem to solve: My family was vegetarian; the other wasn’t. No problem, Van said. “First we go to vegetarian place, you eat, then to non-vegetarian place, they eat, then coffee and then dessert, all eat?”
We agreed and hopped on to the taxi-bikes. “Very safe,” the guides assured the more apprehensive members of our group as they handed each of us a helmet. I clutched the seat in front of me as Van zoomed off into the evening. Two-wheelers are a popular means of transport here and soon we were one among many bikes in the narrow lanes of Ho Chi Minh. En route, our chatty guides pointed out important buildings in the city, like the Post Office, Notre Dame Church, and the Opera House, all vestiges of Vietnam’s French colonial past.
Our first stop was Lau Nam Chay An Hien, a small, vegetarian restaurant in District 1 (chay means vegetarian). “Everyone thinks we eat only pho [pronounced “fur”],” one of our guides said, adding that there were actually many vegetarian dishes in Vietnamese cuisine. Squished into a long, narrow table on the first floor of the restaurant, our group of 14 waited to find out.
First up were spring rolls that were served in bamboo baskets, like the ones we’d seen street hawkers carrying on their shoulders. The rolls, stuffed with mushroom and cassava, were delicious but better yet, I learned how to eat it like a local. In the palm of my left hand, I placed a leaf of lettuce with basil, mint and perilla leaves. Then, I placed the spring roll on this bed of greens, added a dollop of sweet and sour sauce, rolled it up, and bit into it.
We also had goi hoa chuoi, a banana flower salad eaten with crisp rice cakes, and a hot pot delicately flavoured with lemongrass, red chillies and ginger. Each of us dunked raw pieces of cauliflower, mushroom, and noodles into the broth and after a while, ladled them into our bowls. It was fresh and so fragrant that even the meat-eaters had hearty portions.
Our young guides, mostly university students, were a jovial bunch, keen to tell us about their culture and polish their English. To our surprise, we learnt that the Hindi television serial Balika Vadhu was very popular in Vietnam. My mother watches it daily and cries, confessed our guide Duc. Like the teenagers in our families, Duc and his friends had little interest in soap operas, and before long, they were discussing Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber .
We zoomed off on our bikes to the next stop, a hole-in-the-wall joint that our guides claimed served the best banh xeo (translated as sizzling pancake) in town. “We can’t eat here,” my daughter said, turning up her nose at the red plastic stools and rough tables. “It is like a dhaba!”. “And their food, as we know,” one of the peace-seeking adults quickly added, “is better than most fancy hotels.” At this banh xeo joint, we got to watch, too. The chef poured batter made from rice flour and coconut milk on to a large skillet, sprinkled bean sprouts, a smattering of prawn or squid, and within a few seconds, a hot pancake was ready. It was a world away from the American-style pancakes we’d eaten with maple syrup. Banh xeo is eaten on a bed of greens tossed with fish sauce.
For coffee, we stopped at a café tucked away behind an inconspicuous residential building. “A secret place,” Van told us. The coffee was a dark, viscous concoction served in a cup topped with a stainless steel filter. Some of us added cold, condensed milk to the decoction and one of our guides had it chilled with ice. The children had smoothies. Over coffee, we chatted some more with our guides, learning more about contemporary Vietnam. The older generation still has scars that haven’t healed, but if our gang of guides is anything to go by, Vietnam’s younger generation is full of beans. As Van said, “We don’t look back, only to future.”
Our immediate future held the promise of dessert, though we weren’t so sure we had any room left. We alighted at Che Nam Bo, yet another nondescript place with large boards displaying the items on the menu. “Che” describes any traditional, sweet Vietnamese beverage, a guide told us, and I wondered how different our exploration of Vietnam would be if we weren’t on this tour. We’d eaten delicious food, but we had also learned so much about the city and its people.
Dessert, like Ho Chi Minh City, was quite a trip. We started with something called “cold soup”: layers of longan (a fruit like litchi), jelly, pomegranate, coconut milk, and crushed ice. Then we had a plate of fried bananas topped by sesame seeds and sweet sauce, and finally, a glass of pale jelly with a hint of ginger. (So much for no place.) It was past 10p.m. when we reached our hotel—our stomachs fed and our souls sated.