26 July, 2014 / Ramazan 27, 1435

A foodie in Vietnam

Published Dec 24, 2012 12:17am

ALL foodies should visit Vietnam at least once. For a relatively small country, it has an amazing spectrum of dishes on offer.

Some are simple, others complex and sophisticated. But even the simplest ones are delicious, thanks to the fresh ingredients.

Take pho as an example: this uncomplicated dish is a great favourite in the North, and is sold at a large number of roadside stalls. The base for the dish is beef broth prepared by boiling bones and meat for hours; after skimming the surface of any scum, it is then served with thin pasta strands and slices of chicken or beef; prawns are another option. Sliced into the bowl are green scallions, and you add red chilli paste to taste. This is simple but delicious fast food eaten by millions of Vietnamese for breakfast, or just as a quick snack.

In Hanoi where we spent one night, our guidebook sent us to Highway 4, a restaurant in the old city a few streets away from our hotel. Here, the menu stretched from crocodile ribs to roast crickets, with lots of fish, beef and chicken dishes in between. The spicing is often complex, but does not disguise the flavour of the ingredients. Starters have lots of rolls and other small offerings also available at street stalls.

Due to its long coastline, Vietnam is blessed with fine beaches, stunning bays and lots of seafood. Understandably, foreigners have begun flocking here for holidays. And so far, prices are very reasonable. When I first started to spend time in Sri Lanka over a decade ago, the cost of living was below Pakistan’s; but years of inflation have changed this equation until now, Sri Lanka is a more expensive destination than Thailand or Vietnam.

Hanoi, the capital, is not as crowded or as commercial as Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon is now known as), but the streets are still full of cars and motorcycles. The latter are piloted by young men and women who hurtle about as though they were on suicide missions. Dressed alike in jeans, jackets and helmets, they all seem to be in a desperate hurry to get somewhere.

In fact, most people are either talking rapidly on their cell phones, or speeding along on cars or scooters. All too often, they are doing both. And when they dismount from their bikes, they park them on the pavement, forcing pedestrians on to the roads, never a very safe place to be.

Oddly, driving on motorways is far more sedate, with drivers sticking scrupulously to the speed limit. Landing at Danang on our way to our destination, Hoi An, we passed a famous marble quarry as well as shops selling large relief carvings and sculptures. The small, charming town of Hoi An contains numerous art galleries, apart from many restaurants, bars and curio shops.

There are also innumerable tailors happy to turn out suits or shirts made to measure in a couple of days for amazingly low prices. In fact, ordering a new wardrobe here would offset the price of the air ticket. I plan to shame my tailor in Karachi by telling him about the prices here, not that Karachi tailors are capable of being embarrassed…

Although GDP per capita is around $1,500, it is growing rapidly. Many forecasts indicate that the economy will soon be growing at 10 per cent annually as market reforms increase exports, and more foreign visitors and investments flow in. Although Vietnam is ruled by the Communist Party, its economy is increasingly taking on a capitalist hue, much as it has done in China.

Oil is the biggest export, contributing around 22 per cent of foreign exchange earnings. The number of tourists visiting Vietnam is currently around six million, and growing at over 10 per cent annually. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before this small country is overrun by visitors, and the coastline covered by holiday resorts. Already, a large number of tourist hotels block the view of the sea between Danang and Hoi An.

Many of the names of places and towns one sees and hears in Vietnam remind me of the terrible war that ended in 1975 with the defeat of the United States. Danang was one of the largest American bases; Hanoi was bombed relentlessly for months; and Hue was the site of a protracted battle that saw the ancient seat of power virtually destroyed. The city is now slowly being restored to its past glory.

But despite the terrible destruction visited on the country by American forces, I find no great anger towards their erstwhile foes among the younger generation of Vietnamese. American tourists and investors seem to be as welcome here as any other foreigners.

So here’s an odd thing: Vietnam, a country that lost around 1.5 million dead in the war apart from countless wounded and displaced, harbours no hatred for America. Pakistan, a country that has lost a few hundred innocent people in drone attacks, but has received scores of billions of dollars in American aid, is one of the most virulently anti-American countries in the world.

Vietnam is clearly a country that is modernising rapidly, and does not dwell on the past in its keen desire to join the ranks of developed countries. Most Muslims, on the other hand, live mostly in the past, embittered by our slide to the bottom in a highly competitive world. Blaming the West for our misfortunes, we nurse ancient grievances, refusing to accept any responsibility for our predicament.

Returning to my favourite topic of gastronomy, I am glad to report that I am booked for a cooking lesson by a top chef in Hoi An. But before you ask me for details in case you want to visit, be warned that getting a Vietnamese visa is not a simple affair if, like me, you have a green Pakistani passport. So thanks for all your help in getting my visa, Mosharraf.

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Comments (16) (Closed)


Pradip
Dec 24, 2012 03:50pm
Irfan: Thanks once again for a change in theme. I first visited Ho Chi Minh city way back in 1994 but while there ate mostly a whole bunch of German sausages that I love with decent french bread. For Pho, of course Bangkok, Thailand has quite a few Vietnamese restaurants but I would also recommend Boston where Pho is very good. The thing that struck me about Vietnamese cuisine was its dependence on fresh herbs (mint and cilantro among others)...somewhat like Thai cuisine which I think has a richer heritage, as against Indo-Pakistani dry spices. By the way, fried locusts or grasshoppers are very popular in Thailand as well...nice crunchy french fries! On another note, I did find Vietnamese who had corroborated with the US were dealt severely by the regime...I met several who had to resort to begging...which was shocking and they all spoke excellent English. You did not speak of the traditional woman's dress...when I first visited the city, the motorized two wheelers were still relatively scarce and so at the traffic light, once the light turned green, there was this avalanche of women in their dress(I forget the name) on their bicycles...kind of reminded me of Ho Chi Minh's time having seen such dresses in photos before and that would be another departure from the daily life in Pakistan - where seeing women anywhere is a rarity. Perhaps you can write something on Srilankan's cuisine one day - a place I have never been to, even though I am aware there are Srilankan restaurants in NYC.
naren
Dec 24, 2012 10:04am
" be warned that getting a Vietnamese visa is not a simple affair if, like me, you have a green Pakistani passport." Even Vietnam can think like this for Pakistani Passport holder, do you think there is something wrong or this is a conspiracy against Pakistan
Rao
Dec 24, 2012 01:18pm
Yes. It is commando Mush-Winner of so many battles against Afghanistan and India. Where is he now anyway?
kamaljit Singh
Dec 24, 2012 02:44am
Very interesting . Vietnamese are moving ahead without the shackles of the past. Pakistanis are strong and intelligent but they have been fed upon a 'glory' of the past which is not theirs'. They have been made to forget Texla , Mohanjdaro because that happened before Qasim. That is the problem .They are not let to feel the sons of the soil but from Arab world.
Pete
Dec 24, 2012 03:18am
"Vietnam, a country that lost around 1.5 million dead in the war apart from countless wounded and displaced, harbours no hatred for America. Pakistan, a country that has lost a few hundred innocent people in drone attacks, but has received scores of billions of dollars in American aid, is one of the most virulently anti-American countries in the world." -Difference is Pakistan is driven by the most impure form of ISLAM!
raw is war
Dec 24, 2012 10:55am
Dear Irfan, "Most Muslims, on the other hand, live mostly in the past, embittered by our slide to the bottom in a highly competitive world. Blaming the West for our misfortunes, we nurse ancient grievances, refusing to accept any responsibility for our predicament." the same statement by any non-Muslim would have been considered Islamo-phobic / anti-Muslim etc.. Anyways thanks for the interesting article. I will plan my next trip there. We get visas easy, these side of the border.
Sure Kant
Dec 24, 2012 01:33pm
The amount of non-veg stuff eaten corresponds to a man's mental makeup. That's why more violence is perpetrated by such guys than vegans.
Labad
Dec 24, 2012 12:07pm
Vietnamese don't harbor Ill-will toward Americans because they are not brainwashed in their schools. Change your curriculum and you'll eventually change your country. Invest properly in your most precious asset - your children (both boys and girls).
Tribal Manto
Dec 24, 2012 06:09am
Great read, Sir. Every country is in the walking distance. if, you are a foodie like Irfan sahib. Great Nations don't live in the past and past glory does not give any guarantee of future. Pakistan should emulate Vietnam. At the end you mentioned that you got a visa with the help of Mosharraf. Is that our commando Mosharraf???
Cynical
Dec 24, 2012 12:48pm
Thank you Irfan Saab, Great post. Now Vietnam is on my list of places to visit.
Yasir
Dec 24, 2012 08:11am
Although this is a good article regarding Vietnam, the two venomous remarks about Pakiatan leave a stinking stain. One altogether unnecessary jibe at Pakistani tailors, which I assume is inserted as an attempt at satire, reeks of typical superiority complex, or should I say inferiority complex. The other attempt at irony for emotions emanating from "just a few hundred" casualties is plain odorous. I like the article otherwise but I hope the writer will get down from his high horse while writing it and try to be a bit more compassionate towards his fellow countrymen. Any attempts to introduce light hearted humour has to come with a natural flow.
MJ
Dec 24, 2012 04:25pm
I have tried Vietnamese food in Southern California prepared by some Muslims from Vietnam and can attest to the wonderful flavors and spices that are used. However I would like to warn any folks from Pakistan to be careful if they are eating at roadside restaurants in Vietnam in particular and eating in that country in general that a lot of pork items are integral part of their cuisine. One restaurant that I would like to recommend is 'Halal Saigon' in Ho Chi Minh city.
Morgahi
Dec 24, 2012 06:14pm
Very lucid and an incisive reply to foodie who should refrain from making flippant remarks like, "...just a few hundred dead....". Truly shameful of him
A R Khan
Dec 24, 2012 07:47pm
How did you manage to get halal food in there?
Pradip
Dec 25, 2012 10:38pm
Better stay home. :D Anyone looking for halal, should not go anywhere in south east asia, Japan or China. The same goes for Koshar lovers, as all sea food like shrimp are non-koshar and that too like pork is everywhere.
a.r.khan
Dec 26, 2012 08:11am
Caught you there. It was a joke.