Vietnam is a country on the move. A thousand years of Chinese rule, a hundred years of the French, a couple decades of us. These people have something to prove. Vietnam is a country essentially self-created over the last thirty years, but nobody in this long, toothpick-thin nation is interested in abandoning any of their traditional food pathways. In fact, modern restaurant culture is just beginning here in Vietnam and it seems to be solely the domain of the business traveler and tourist. But I digress.
Snakes. I love snakes. And if you are going to eat a snake I would suggest that you do it at the Snake Festival in Le Mat. We arrived in the morning, we stayed late in the day participating in the parade and the street fair festival atmosphere.
But let me tell you, the best part of Snake Festival is negotiating your way into a snake restaurant, picking out your snake…I splurged and went for cobra…then having it disappear to the kitchen after being bled and gutted tableside. The tasty results? Crispy snake skin, snake spring rolls, sauteed snake with chilies and lemon grass, a delicious but benign ending to a meal that begins with the ceremonial reptilian execution.
I love street food. And in Vietnam, they have the best street food culture in the world. At the top of the food chain are the small four to six seat “restaurants” that are really no more than a portable kitchen roughly three feet square around which the chef and owner tosses a couple of plastic stools for patrons to squat. My favorites? The pho, the roasted sparrows, the snail vendors, and the patty crab pounding soup and noodle salad makers. Of course, the best street foods are in and around the amazing markets that are seemingly on every street corner. In fact, the Vietnamese shop more than any other people in the world. Vietnamese cooks and homemakers will shop three or four times a day…literally going to market in between every meal period. To say the food in Vietnam is fresh is the understatement of the century.
The most fun restaurant in Hanoi is Bobby Chinn’s. This guy is a showman in the extreme and hanging out for an afternoon cooking and eating with him was an experience that I’ll never forget. Just to let you know the kind of guy he is, we spent the last half hour of our visit together playing Rolling Stones cover songs on the steps leading up into his restaurant with a hat between our legs. Begging doesn’t become me, but it was fun. If you eat at his restaurant in Hanoi, don’t skip the crab salad and go late at night where the girl watching and the people ogling is without peer.
The best experience of every trip are always the food making adventures that I like to go on. In Vietnam, after a day cruising Ha Long Bay on a hundred year old Chinese junk, we went to the island of Cat Hai where they have been making fish sauce the same way for a thousand years. Every step of the process is a hands on affair. What do I mean by that? The shrimp and small fish and squid that are used to create the fish sauce are hauled in by hand, they are cleaned by hand they are chopped up and soaked in handmade clay pots for a year they are filtered and the sludge is distilled, hauled by wheelbarrows to the giant strainers. They make five thousand bottles a day. There is no where in the world that I can think of where a Rolls Royce product of this type is still made entirely the old fashioned way without an electrical socket or laptop within twenty miles. Wandering the island for the afternoon, in a town with no cars where there is no noise, no electricity poles, no phone wires, where little kids are diving off a muddy bridge to pry oysters off the decades old cement supports, sipping fresh coconut juice while we wait for lunch of island delicacies…this is still one of the best and most memorable afternoons on an all-around incredible trip.