“An com chua?”
If you’re going to understand Vietnam and the Vietnamese, this three-word phrase is key. A friendly greeting exchanged throughout the day, it poses a seemingly mundane question: “Have you eaten yet?” (The polite answer, even if you have, is “Why, no—let’s eat!”)
Food is at the very heart of Vietnamese culture. Almost every aspect of social, devotional, and family life revolves around the procurement, preparation, and shared pleasure of nourishment. Even commercial life: more than half of Vietnam’s population makes a living in agriculture or the food trade. Markets are on every corner; cooks on every curb. A sneeze elicits the blessing com muoi, or “rice with salt.”
On a recent train ride from Hue to Hoi An, food was everywhere in sight. At each station stop, vendors rushed up to the windows proffering homemade treats: shrimp cakes, jerky, sticky rice. One vendor came aboard and walked the aisles, selling sun-dried squid. (An American traveler bought one, thinking it was a decorative fan.) In the bar car the train conductor and his staff spent the whole ride not collecting tickets but preparing lunch: cooking noodles, shelling prawns, trimming basil into woven baskets.
Follow any lane in any Vietnamese city at any time of day and you’ll find some contented soul crouched over a bowl of broth or rice. Then again, if you lived in Vietnam, you’d eat all the damn time, too. The food is beautiful to behold, if only for the colors alone: turmeric-yellow crêpes, sunset-orange crabs, scarlet-red chiles, deep-purple shrimp paste, and endless jungles of vivid green. Vietnamese cooking is fresher, healthier, lighter, and brighter than, for instance, Chinese or Indian or French, three of its closest relations. Though it is often described as “honest” and “direct”—cooks resist fussy ornamentation (except in Hue; more on that later)—this is a cuisine rich with nuance, carrying a complexity that is all the more surprising for its being served in, say, a plastic bowl with a Tweety Bird logo, on a flimsy table on the pavement. Flavors and textures are deftly arranged so each note rings clear, from the piercing highs of chili paste and nuoc mam (fish sauce) to the bottomless depths of a stock that’s been burbling since dawn. These are tastes that sate, soothe, and just as often shock you awake—particularly the pungent greens and herbs that figure in almost every dish. After the wonder that is Vietnamese produce, the stuff back home seems like a recording of a recording of a cassette that was left out in the sun.
I’ve spent roughly 100 days in Hanoi over the past 12 years, and I don’t recall ever once seeing blue sky. Not that I’d have it any other way. Like London or Seattle, this is a city that becomes itself under cloud cover. During those moist, moody afternoons, when mist hangs over the streets like smoke from a cooking fire, Vietnam’s gorgeous old capital feels more intimate than it already is.
Even in the heat of summer, Hanoians favor cockle-warming dishes suited to far chillier climes. The most renowned of these is Vietnam’s de facto national dish: pho bo, eaten at any time of day but especially for breakfast. Taking root in an earthy, long-simmered beef broth—shot through with clove, ginger, and star anise—the soup is filled out with rice noodles and one or more varieties of raw or cooked beef, tendon, or tripe. Southerners sprinkle fresh herbs and bean sprouts on top, but a Northern pho is generally unadorned, with only a few scallions and a bit of cilantro cooked into the broth and perhaps a squirt of rice vinegar.