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A foodie in Vietnam

December 24, 2012

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.