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Monday, September 12, 2005

Pho and old houses

WHETHER walking or riding around the city of Ho Chi Minh (I must admit "Saigon" has a more musical ring to it), it's hard to imagine that the country suffered 40 years of war and has only been open to the outside in the last decade. Impressive examples of 19th century French style architecture dominate government colonial buildings with their Victorian wedding-cake décor painted spanking clean. Colonial houses with tiled roofs have been converted into restaurants serving French or Vietnamese cuisine, and the towering trees around plazas made my companion remark that typhoons mustn't pass this way often.

The city has retained its old grid, with wide avenues that remind the visitor of Paris. Everywhere people are chattering, eating and riding the three million motorbikes on lanes reserved for them. There are seven million inhabitants in this once war-torn capital, all busy, it seems. The government may be communist but the people certainly have joined the market economy.

Temporary food stalls proliferate along many sidewalks and public spaces in the cities. Some stalls are open until early in the morning to cater to regular customers. Around noon, owners can be seen arranging tables and benches along the pavement to form makeshift shop floors. After two or three hours, when there are no more customers, they begin to remove all of their wooden furniture, so that the place resumes its former appearance. You can't help comparing it to the utter lack of discipline displayed by our own vendors, with the complicity of officials in return for a vote or a bribe. It's enough to make you wonder whether democracy works for us.

Across our hotel is a small plaza with a fountain flanking the opera house built in 1880, with high-domed ceilings and massive pillars. In the evening, an out-door café blooms and people take their drinks basking in the cool breeze. Carmina Burana, with a 200 strong chorale, was playing that evening combining both Vietnamese and German choirs.

Rice plays an essential role in the diet of this country of 80 million people as it does throughout Southeast Asia. Cuisine may differ between the north, south and central regions, but not the addiction to noodles that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in homes, restaurants and at roadside stands. Noodles are eaten wet and dry, in soup or beside soup, and are made in different shapes and thicknesses of wheat, rice and mung beans. ("Pho" is soup with noodles.) Secondly, no meal is complete without fresh vegetables and herbs. But their cuisine is a marvelous revelation.

I imagine the French colonizers influenced Vietnamese cuisine although I can't tell you how exactly. There are similarities to Chinese cooking, but instead of soy sauce, they use fish sauce ("patis" to you) almost exclusively. They also use a lot of basil, lemon grass, lime and something called kaffir lime. Many dishes are pure vegetarian.

The dish that most of us are familiar with and a pure delight is their pho. It is apparently also the most popular food among the Vietnamese. They eat it for breakfast, and many people have it for lunch or dinner. The grated rice noodle is made from a variety of fragrant rice called "gao te." The broth of "pho bo" (pho with beef) is made by stewing the bones of cows and pigs in a large pot for a long time while the soup for "pho ga" (pho with chicken meat) is made by stewing chicken and pig bones together. The white chicken meat that is usually served with "pho ga" is boneless and cut into thin slices. With this you are given basil leaves, a slice of lime, chili sauce, plum sauce and bean sprouts to add to your soup if you wish.

Another favorite is their fresh spring rolls, wrapped in a very thin sheet of rice paper. It contains what we call glass noodles, lettuce and mint leaves and who knows what else. All I can tell you is that it's exquisitely light and delicious. It's so light you actually feel virtuous eating it. It is even tastier when dipped in a sweet, sour, and spicy sauce called "nuoc cham."

Dining in converted colonial houses certainly heightens the experience of trying out new dishes, not least because of an Old World ambiance. If you do go to Ho Chi Minh City, make sure you try their grilled shrimp paste wrapped around a stick of sugar cane, their varied recipes for young pumpkin blossoms and their banana blossom salad served artistically on a banana frond.

Another memorable dish was beef simmered inside a section of bamboo, blue flames still flickering when brought to your table. But then the Vietnamese have retained their forests and have enough bamboo that they can afford to export to us. Reforestation is taken seriously.

The shopoholics can find all kinds of Vietnamese crafts: woodcarvings, stone carvings, lacquer ware (really, really gorgeous), paintings and ceramics. The porcelain goes back a long way. As a matter of fact, my introduction to Vietnamese pottery was in blue and white Annamese ware found in excavations. They're still producing them, so caveat emptor.

Equally exquisite are their embroideries. An hour or two at the old colonial Ben Thanh Market in the city center will more or less give you a pretty good idea of the range of products.

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