I met up for lunch with Linh Phan, a Vietnam repatriate whose family left in ’72 and made a home in Toronto. He came back 20 years ago after a Canadian upbringing and education, ready to seek his success in the new Vietnam, a country that has since rebuilt and is thriving, especially with the ambition of smart, hard working people like him. The average age here is 25, the population has tripled to 90 million since the early 70s and although the red flag with Star and Hammer & Sickle flies, there is clearly a movement towards independent business. Everyone works; if not employed, they start their own business, even as simple as selling fruit or cold drinks on the side of the road. Everyone works. The cost of living is low and there is high quality food everywhere – even if it seems like it should be dodgy street food, it is so fresh and always moving that it is much less likely to be “iffy” that one might expect. Simple cafes and stands offer signature dishes and the flavours are explosive; always balanced with a dipping sauce or a side crunch. Wet blends with dry, sweet with hot and salty with sour. Wonderful.
We start with a Northern style Chicken Pho in a small stand on a busy street (that does not narrow down the location). Instead of the usual herb toppings for Beef Pho, this has chilies, lime and a side dish of chicken blood pudding and plucked eggs (those before a shell forms). Delicious broth, noodles with a bite, dense chicken, and fast, it was a treat.We are a moving target, off to the next location.
In a little Quan next to the river I experience Bahn Khot, a rice batter crust, like a Yorkshire Pudding topped with fresh shrimp and peanuts. This is wrapped in mustard leaves with grated green papaya and banana stem, plus leaves of shiso, mint, basil and some others I could not identify, then dipped in watered-down fish sauce with fresh ground chilies. Good grief, so complex, cooling and tasty that I was looking for ways to describe it. Nice, I was describing it to a local expert, yeah.
We cruised around several neighbourhoods, including Linh’s house and a visit to our pal Jack Lee’s cooking school, where my wife Anna was shooting an episode for a new tv series. We snuck out for another in a long series of snacks, this one, Banh Cuon, a fresh soft sheet of tapioca starch filled with pork, topped with sprouts, herbs, crisp shallots and fish sauce. Like a see-through ravioli or dumpling, this was an incredible savoury blast of rich, gentle flavour, fulfilling yet low in fat. Honest, a remarkable taste sensation.
We didn’t say “goodbye” but rather “see you later” – it’s just too good to not come back here.