Vietnamese street life: A feast in the East

You want fast food? Head for Ho Chi Minh City. Jamie Oliver's former boss took his tastebuds on tour to Vietnam. The great thing about eating here is the food's not only delicious and quick, but healthy too. Tom Kime reports from the land where everyone's a cook

To truly enter the world of the Vietnamese, take a ride on a cyclo, the local version of a rickshaw, and travel at the same speed and level as the people - a novelty for me, because I am 6ft 4in. Mounted on bicycles and small scooters, cyclos move in a swarm, like large buzzing insects.

Extraordinary sights prevail: people trying to load a fridge on to a motorbike, a family of five perfectly balanced on one bicycle (quite a feat - ever tried giving one person a lift on a bike?). I even saw a workman shouldering a 30ft bamboo ladder start up his two-wheeled Honda and set off into the evening rush-hour chaos.

On a previous visit to film a television series - cooking north to south through this spectacular country - we did a piece to camera in a cyclo on the move. It was a bizarre experience: I was in one contraption while the sound technician and camera operator moved in parallel in another.

Even though there was less than two feet between the cyclos, we took bets on whether a cheeky local would try to squeeze between us. Sure enough, we turned a corner and a beautiful girl wearing long, pearl-white silk gloves and a conical hat slithered her bike through the gap, within inches of the camera lens.

Travelling this way also reveals much about how Vietnamese people buy and eat their food. On any street corner, you will see a thriving culinary scene, with hundreds of vendors and street-side cafes clamouring for business. It's a perfect type of madness.

Vietnam is an extraordinary country, with a unique cuisine, lighter and more refreshing than much of Thai food, while using many similar ingredients. It is more fragrant than Chinese food, mainly because of the use of many raw herbs that have fresh, aromatic qualities - dishes are often described as perfumed and thoroughly deserve this label. The food stalls and portable cafes appear early in the morning and remain packed well into the night.

Each vendor will have a speciality: chilled young coconut milk served with a straw from the still green fruit, or a cup of jasmine or green tea. Open omelettes are stuffed with fresh prawns and herbs and cooked over charcoal.

One of my favourites is Bun Cha, strips of pork marinated with chilli, ginger and garlic and barbecued in racks while you watch. The smoky smell of the pork will waft into your nostrils when you are blocks away, compelling you to seek out its source, the sizzling Bun Cha stall.

Seating is often provided at these food stalls, though "seating" is quite a grand term for a stack of coloured plastic stools, similar to those you might expect to find at a children's tea party in England. My attempts to avail myself of such luxuries always cause much hilarity for the vendor and those passing by because of my height: my knees will be under my chin with a small bowl of noodles balancing precariously on top of them.

With nearly 2,000 miles of coastline and huge deltas on the Mekong and the Perfume and Red rivers, Vietnam treats fish, shellfish and anything that swims in or lives near water as an essential part of life. The national diet consists largely of varieties of fish, rice and their by-products.

Vietnamese cuisine also incorporates fresh and often raw vegetables, plants and herbaceous leaves. It is healthy food, using plants for their medicinal as well as culinary properties. The result is a diet free of dairy and wheat products, using little sugar or fat, simply cooked to retain and optimise all of the inherent nutritional qualities of the foods.

With so many people experiencing intolerances and allergies to different kinds of foods, Vietnamese cooking is becoming more popular in the West. The Vietnamese eat every part of just about every animal. Nothing is wasted. Considering their Buddhist tradition, one would assume the Vietnamese to be vegetarians. However, what is apparent is a desire not to offend anyone. This is true of the host, as well as the guest. If served meat, guests will always eat it, no matter what their beliefs are.

Vietnam has a powerful sense of community, apparent at every street corner, where life is displayed on the pavement. You can get your hair cut by the barber who has set up his stall near a park with a mirror tied to the railings. You can buy your lottery ticket at a little plastic table at the crossroads.

Life is vital, immediate, and lived in the public realm. A trip to the market is a daily adventure, sometimes repeated two or three times a day, with families returning to buy fresh ingredients for each meal.

Fish is often sold alive to guarantee its freshness. There is not much refrigeration in Vietnam, so huge blocks of ice are sawn up in the market. The intense heat, 90 per cent humidity and an obvious lack of refrigeration does not seem to affect the quality of the food. What is sold in the market is always fresh and of the highest standard.

We could learn some lessons from the Vietnamese - selling sub-standard produce is not entertained. Stalls are piled high with minced ginger, chilli relishes and bunches of picked, washed herbs, fresh from the fields. This is a chef's heaven.

When you leave the organised chaos of Hanoi in the north, you can head for the ancient imperial city of Hue, which is on the banks of the Perfume River, in the centre of Vietnam. Hue is well kept and has a rare tranquillity to it. It is a strange type of silence. In 1968, 10,000 people died there in the American bombardment that followed the North Vietnamese Tet offensive. The city has never quite recovered and much of the ancient citadel was destroyed. However, you can still imagine its former splendour. A war- ravaged beauty with gaping holes in its silhouette.

Hue is famed for its intricate imperial cuisine. In the north and the south, food is placed centrally on the table with one large bowl containing each speciality. But in Hue, food is presented in many small vessels, so the table looks bounteous, and deserving of an emperor. Hot, sweet, salty and sour flavours symbolise Vietnamese cuisine. The aesthetic presentation of the dishes is important. Yet, despite Hue's renown for elaborate and intricate displays of tradition, the most delicious meal that I ate there was the most simple. The dish is called Bahn Khoai or happy crepes, because of the expressive or "happy" sound they make when they are frying. These open pancakes are stuffed with pork and prawns and mushrooms. They offer a mouth-watering combination of different textures, crunchy, chewy and crispy.

If this were not enough, I found this dish in the establishment of a man who is a deaf mute, and expresses his love through his food. Mr Le of Lac Tien is extraordinarily welcoming, and the simple food is a delight. We ate and laughed all afternoon. His mother, who opened the restaurant 35 years ago, makes the pancakes, and his children serve. They laughed at my long legs and practised their English. The restaurant is a vital destination when you are in Hue.

I took a trip to a village in southern Vietnam which we later renamed "Noodleville". Everyone in the village was involved in making noodles by hand, and the evidence was everywhere. The batter was made from rice flour, salt and water, and was steamed into huge thin pancakes.

The fires in the village were fuelled by the rice husks from the harvest (every part of the harvest was used). These pancakes are then laid on bamboo mats, giving the distinctive criss-crossed pattern that is common on rice wrappers. The sheets of steamed batter are then put outside the houses around thevillage to dry in the tropical sun.

The day that I visited the village was a perfect one, and sunshine streamed through these pancake disks. Chickens and laughing children live together in this environment, which has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.

Yet for us, it is like many of the sites in Vietnam that are newly intriguing. It is an ancient place being discovered, as if for the first time, by curious Western eyes.

Travelling from north to south through Vietnam is an adventure that satisfies all the senses. If having a full stomach is counted as a sense, it certainly satisfies that.

The Vietnamese make a fantastic dish that has a cult following across the country and consequently in every neighbourhood of the diaspora. It is mainly eaten for breakfast. However, it is so delicious and popular that it is sold and can be eaten at any time of day.

Pho - which is pronounced fir - from the French name Pot au Feu (pot on the fire) is a soup that originates from the north. It begins as an intense stock of beef or chicken bones cooked with ginger cinnamon and star anise and is kept constantly simmering.

It is not possible to walk past a stall selling it without having a taste, because if a smell were to have a three-dimensional form then it would be Pho. The scent is so tangible that you can practically eat the steam.

Pho stalls are often completely silent, because everyone is deep in concentration with spoon, chopsticks or up-ended bowl, like work-horses with their mealtime nosebags.

There is little talk, just slurping, the air thick with the perfume of ginger, cinnamon and star anise.

One bowl and you are hooked - you can see why it has become the fuel of Vietnam. You cannot start the day without it. It wakes you up and grounds you, excites your palate and is the ultimate in comfort food in the same first mouthful.

I can say about four words in Vietnamese, so I knew that getting the recipe would be a bit hard. Over bowls of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and Pho Ca (chicken noodle soup) at different stalls throughout Vietnam, I wrote copious notes about how I imagined it was made.

I wrote about how it tasted, making my tongue, tastebuds and sense of smell do all the work and tell me what was in it. The finished soup tastes rich and sumptuous with the toasted characteristics of the roasted spices. It has a great depth of flavour consisting of many layers.

Like many dishes in Vietnam, the fine-tuning of the dish is left to the individual, who is encouraged to add the extra elements they choose from the variety of condiments provided at each diner.

A table salad is also provided for the diners to select leaves from, such as coriander, mint and Thai basil, or peppery hot rocket and watercress, which are placed with lengths of spring onion and chopped red chilli and lime wedges. Leaves are torn to release their distinct zesty perfumes and oils. The chilli, fish sauce and lime juice can be added to taste.

Vietnamese cooking provides a communal way of eating, as well as an opportunity for individual contact with food. When you have added all your condiments, just stir your bowl from the bottom to combine your flavours. You don't have to be a chef to create a culinary masterpiece in this country.

My top sight

One of the most extraordinary experience of my travels through Vietnam this time was a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Vietcong hid, lived and fought against the Americans. There, in the dark narrow passages, the Tet offensive was planned. It was eerie underground, but it was fascinating to see how all that food was cooked down there for the thousands of Vietcong troops. The tunnels were made to enable people to travel long distances easily, so that they could spring up and surprise the enemy where required.

My top meal

One Vietnamese couple I met invited me into their home to eat with them. They provided the most spectacular meal, rivalling the imperial feasts served in Hue. We ate prawn and sour-melon soup; pork and tiny black mushroom spring rolls; fishcakes rolled around sticks of lemon grass, and then deep-fried; and an amazing dish of beef and home-pickled onions with roasted peanuts, with a tamarind caramel sauce. I often remember with fondness that time in the kitchen with Tow and her husband, away from the urban sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City.

My top fast food

Much of the street food is carried in bamboo baskets suspended from wooden yolks on the shoulders of the vendors. These baskets carry fruit and vegetables or a small charcoal stove where tea is brewed or soup heated - this really is fast food. Hail a vendor and order noodles wherever you are, day or night. They are cooked for you and then the vendor moves on. This is the best way to eat when you are travelling. You might eat four or five times a day - a little at regular intervals. That is unless you are presenting a programme on street food and at every corner you have to begin eating on camera again. One day I had to eat about 15 different meals.

Tom Kime is the consultant chef at Taste at the Fortina Spa Resort in Malta (00 356 2346 0000; hotelfortina.com). 'Exploring Taste and Flavour' by Tom Kime is published by Kyle Cathie (£19.99)

A foodie's guide to Vietnam

The fresher the better:

When you are eating street food in Vietnam, always head for the stalls that are busy. Just point to the fresh food you want and ask for it to be cooked to order - you don't have to be an expert in the Vietnamese language to eat with the locals.

Buy buy buy, sell sell sell:

In the old town of Hanoi, the street names correspond to particular trades. So don't be surprised to come across one side of a street that is solely selling, say, bamboo ladders or poles, while another is the place to buy yourself a candle or a coffin.

Read the book:

Before you go, buy a copy of Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American', which paints a picture of the early days of US involvement in Vietnam. It may have been published 50 years ago, but it still evokes the sights and sounds of this country.

To market, to market:

Ben Thanh market is a must if you're visiting Ho Chi Minh City. You can buy everything from a pair of sandals to a jade ring, a bicycle inner tube to freshly ground spices. Produce, flowers and meats are sold on the sidewalks roundabout.

Everybody's chewing it:

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is often referred to as the belly of Vietnam, while the capital, Hanoi, in the north, is said to be the head. To be honest, it doesn't really matter where you travel to in this country, because everybody is obsessed with food.

It's hotter down south:

Most people who travel to Vietnam try to take in as much of the country as possible. You'll discover, as you travel farther south the climate becomes more tropical. You'll also find that the food tastes hotter too, more peppery and spicy.

One singular sensation:

One restaurant you mustn't miss in Hanoi is Cha ca la Vong, 14 Cha ca Street (00 84 4 825 3929). It is 135 years old and is owned by the family that set it up. They serve only one dish, called Cha ca, which is fish marinated with ginger, chilli and dill.

Gear for souvenirs:

Make time to visit the antique shops that are scattered around the country. Look out for the beautiful blue and white porcelain bowls and silver chop sticks from Vietnam's imperial past. These make great souvenirs.

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