Mark JohnstonYOU LIKE VIETNAMESE FOOD? THAT DEPENDS… Mark Johnston March 15 Travel, Vietnam 8 Comments If you’d asked me three weeks ago whether I liked Vietnamese food, my answer would have been an emphatic “YES!” However, after a few weeks living and road tripping with extended family in Southern Vietnam, my answer has changed to: “That depends.” That depends on how long it takes to beat the eels to death in the dirt outside before we eat them. That depends on whether the vegetables have been sitting on the filthy floor of the restaurant kitchen in standing water. That depends on whether I end up with the chicken’s head in my bowl along with it’s skin and bones, but little to no meat. That depends on whether you classify this pig’s ear and dried cuttlefish as food, or if it’s just something I’m supposed to chew for a while before putting it back on my plate. That depends on whether our time at the dinner table will be spent actually eating or just carrying out a dissection like 9th-grade biology class… etc. I’ll admit it, I’m a wimpy western eater. I like my meats well-cut, well-packaged and long dead; cellophane-wrapped and shining brightly on display, ready for me to purchase before the clearly stamped “best-by” date. Rather, I should say liked my meats that way as I’ll be officially announcing my conversion to vegetarianism here shortly. Because if I felt this sorry for the chicken having its throat cut, then I probably shouldn’t be eating it. Food doesn’t get any fresher than this though. Every small market is bustling as families shop for their next meal, picking out fruits and vegetables grown nearby and meat still moving or slaughtered hours earlier. And these market trips are made Every. Single. Day. Compare that to the bi-monthly grocery trips my wife and I made back home where most of our food products were pumped full of preservatives and transported hundreds, if not thousands of miles to our store shelves. On our last visit to Vietnam Britnee and I only had a quick ten days to follow the tourist track from south to north. The most authentic food we were served back then was an entire fish that stared up at us from our shared plate in Halong Bay, a delicacy I now pray my host will deliver. We spent most of our time eating tourist food in tourist districts: plenty of Bún chả, Bánh mì, Phở and rice dishes served alongside beef with no traces of moo left in it. It was some of the best food I’d ever eaten. Then, when I returned to the U.S., I eagerly sought out Vietnamese restaurants close to home to fulfill my new craving for their delicious food and iced coffee. Thankfully, it was all the same good stuff — properly westernized — and I continued living under the false impression that I was the #1 fan of “authentic” Vietnamese food. Ignorance is bliss. So when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh this time around and I was asked, “Do you like Vietnamese food?” I was so sure of my answer. “YES!” Now, just three weeks later, after one hospital visit and numerous skipped meals, I’m happy to find relief in a rare plate of spaghetti. I still love Vietnamese food, I’ll just have to update my definition as I can no longer kick it with the locals and their steamed pig’s uterus. “I love Vietnamese food — for tourists.” 8 Responses Heidi March 15 Uhh … why did you go to the hospital? Mark Johnston March 16 I’m not sure you want the details Heidi. 😉 Dan March 16 What the hell is that frog snake stew?! Mark Johnston March 16 No, they just have to live together in the market. Lane Smitty July 20 The Vietnamese food you’re claiming is for the tourists is no less authentic. It is not westernized for the western palate. Likewise, Vietnamese-American food also still caters primarily to Vietnamese-Americans (unlike Chinese-American food which is heavily westernized and mainstream). This is like saying “real American food” must be fried crickets or stewed alligator from the south, and not burgers or steaks. Or that Fish and Chips is not real British food, but blood sausage is. You don’t pick the most foreign or “gruesome” (to the specific culture you’re writing for) dish and use that as a representation for the entire cuisine. Mark Johnston July 21 I understand your point Lane, but have to disagree with your last sentence. The delicacies you’re referring to as the most “gruesome” were not some rare Fear Factor-like discovery now being used to represent all Vietnamese food, but common encounters. Maybe it’s more a domestic wealth divide than cultural, as we rarely sat to eat in upper-class restaurants when eating with local friends, but everything we ate this time around differed so greatly from our past tourist experiences.