I had a suspicion that I was going to love Vietnamese food, but this was purely based on 2 lunches I had at a Vietnamese restaurant in Alliston, Ontario, when I was about to leave Canada! However, my hunch was right - I adore Vietnamese cuisine.
It's full of zingy flavours, with lots of fruit, herbs and vegetables. It's also generally pretty healthy as it often includes very little oil. I have yet to attempt cooking any Vietnamese dishes at home, but one of the mums at my school who is Vietnamese has told me that she sometimes runs cookery classes in her home, and has said she'll invite me along to the next one - I can't wait.
Whilst in Saigon (which I suppose I should really be calling Ho Chi Minh City, its official name) we ate out every day. On our first evening there we discovered the Night Market which springs up in the streets every evening as the indoor market, Ben Thanh, closes. It was amazing watching the 'restaurants' appear - gazebos would be erected, barbecues lit, chairs and tables put out, and within what seemed like minutes they were open for business.
Baffled by the choice, and basing our selection purely upon which sold the cheapest 'Bia Saigon' (10,000 dong - 50c US!) we settled down for a snack.
We chose Rice Paper Rolls, delicious prawn and noodle-filled rolls which also included a healthy handful of various herbs - Mint, Thai Basil, and others we couldn't identify. They were served with a gorgeous dipping sauce, a little like the Thai nam prik num, but sweeter - made with fish sauce, lime juice, chili and sugar. I've found a recipe for the rolls and sauce here (an Australian food site!) We also ordered some fried spring rolls which were nice, but felt rather unhealthy compared to the other rolls.
The local beer was great. And at roughly 30p (UK) per bottle, you certainly couldn't complain! We've got very used to not having an alcoholic drink when we eat out in Brunei, so it seemed like a real treat to be able to enjoy a chilled lager (or 3) with our meal.
Breakfast the following morning in our hotel proved to be a very exciting buffet. They had attempted to cater to both western and Asian tastes, and Rob did try a great-British-fry-up once...
But of course the best option turned out to be rice porridge with condiments (a new favourite of mine, and something we have started making regularly at home), followed by fried rice and vegetables, topped with a fried egg.
Thus fortified by breakfast we would head out to explore the city. It was a source of great stress to me that we didn't often eat lunch - what a wasted opportunity! But we were usually so full after breakfast that we couldn't manage the next meal. However, it always amused us to see that the locals had no such worries and would stop for lunch wherever they were and whatever they were doing...
It was a great time to wander around the markets as the stall-holders were too busy eating to grab you and attempt to thrust touristy t-shirts upon you.
Of course it wasn't long before we sampled the famous Vietnamese soup, Pho. Pho shops and stalls were everywhere - this one sold itself on the fact that Bill Clinton ate here on a presidential visit.
We however chose to eat at Pho 24, a countrywide chain of Pho restaurants that came highly recommended in our guidebook.
We ordered Pho with beef fillet, and watched as they ladled out a dish of steaming broth then dropped in the thin slices of raw meat, which were cooked as they hit the hot soup. The soup is full of noodles, but was served with a large plate of herbs, beansprouts, chilis and lime wedges to add to taste.
During our day out to the Mekong Delta we ate lunch at a great little restaurant that served lots of fresh Mekong-caught seafood. This crispy-fried fish was shredded for us and piled into rice pancakes.
Pudding in Vietnam was usually fruit. This stunning array was served with a small bowl of chili-salt in which to dip the fruit. The sweet mango and pineapple were particularly nice eaten like this. Note the ubiquitous Vietnam-grown Dragon Fruit.
We revisited the Night Market several times during the week, and soon began to scour the menu for more exciting dishes. Some however proved a little too exciting, even for adventurous foodies like ourselves...
We settled instead for 'Roof Tile Beef' which we had seen being served on an adjoining table. It involved being presented with a barbecue-in-a-bucket which was placed on the table, with an earthenware roof-tile on the top. A small bowl of oil and a plate of thinly sliced beef was then brought to the table, and you proceeded to cook your own beef on the tile.
It was a hot business, but by the time we ordered it a second time another evening, we were getting quite professional!
To serve the beef we were given a plate of rice pancakes, cooked rice vermicelli and an absolute heap of greenery - lots of herbs, lettuce and spring onions, as well as various dipping sauces for the finished rolls.
Then the beef (perfectly cooked!)...
And roll, dip and eat.
If anyone can recommend any Vietnamese cookbooks, or perhaps have tried some great Vietnamese recipes, I'd love to hear from you.