First published April 2020 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
During hard times, food (if and when it’s available) is a great source of comfort. Over the course of the last few weeks, as the spectre of Coronavirus began to close in on Vietnam and the rest of the world, I’ve felt lucky to be living in a country where food is a daily pleasure, a pride, and a part of national identity. In the weeks preceding the nationwide lock-down, dining out became the highlight of each day: mealtimes offered respite from the increasing gloom and creeping realization that the world was about to change. Food in Vietnam is always a time of colour, excitement, joy and, perhaps most nostalgically of all during this period of physical distancing, human interaction. As the nation was on the cusp of imposing self-isolation, quarantines, and lock-downs, I started to feel both grateful and emotional during my daily meals, as it dawned on me that this fundamental aspect of Vietnamese life – dining out – was about to cease, and that I would miss it dearly. And so, in the week leading up to the lock-down, I documented some of my last meals on the streets of Vietnam.
LAST MEALS BEFORE LOCK–DOWN
Vietnam, like many other countries, is in the midst of a nationwide lock-down: in the big cities, all non-essential businesses are supposed to be closed. But food and drink outlets – street food vendors, informal eateries, cafes, juice stalls – were among the last places to close their doors, and, even now, many remain open, serving take-out only. Street life and street food are crucial elements of many Vietnamese communities: from urban neighbourhoods to rural hamlets. Before the lock-down, street food was still thriving: indeed, sitting down to a bowl of noodles was one of the only times it was acceptable to take off your mask. On this page, I’ve documented some of my last meals before the lock-down. Please note that I haven’t included any of the locations, as the proprietors asked me not to. Click a meal from the list below to read more:
Mì Bò Kho: aromatic beef stew with fresh egg noodles
Star anise, cardamon, cloves, and lemongrass; slow-cooked beef, carrots, and soft, freshly-made egg noodles; a nest of herbs, including cumin-scented rice paddy herb, crunchy sawtooth coriander, and sweet basil: bò kho is a rich, mildly spicy curry, usually served with a warm baguette for dunking, but also great (and more substantial) over egg noodles. This small soup stall was tranquil and calm before the lock-down. (More about bò kho in this guide.)
Phở Bò: beef broth with rice noodles
Vietnam’s best-known dish, phở bò needs no introduction. This bowl had an intense cinnamon flavour and thick cuts of beef brisket. I always squeeze lots of lime into my phở, and all those bean sprouts and spring onions went in too. This soup house was crowded and lively on an evening before the lock-down. (Read more about phở bò in this guide.)
Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang: rice vermicelli pork noodle soup
A popular dish throughout the southern provinces, this large, chunky, hearty bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang is packed with goodies: pork rib, pork patty, barbecued marinated pork, ground pork, fish ball, shrimp, quail egg, chives, bean sprouts, lettuce leaves and accoutrements. This noodle house was quiet and tense on an afternoon before the lock-down.
Bánh Cuốn Thập Cẩm: assorted steamed rice paper rolls
A comforting breakfast, bánh cuốn are steamed rice paper rolls with assorted fillings, including wood ear mushrooms, ground pork, duck eggs, and shrimp. The rolls are served warm with a garnish of roast shallots, herbs, Vietnamese pork sausage, and a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. This eatery was bustling on a morning before the lock-down.
Mì Quảng Gà: turmeric rice noodles with chicken
A much-loved dish, mì quảng gà is always a satisfying meal. A salty, rich broth with thick rice noodles coloured with turmeric, this bowl was served with chicken, roast pork, fish cake, quail eggs, peanuts, rice crackers, herbs and banana blossom, in an empty, family-run noodle house, in a nervous atmosphere before the lock-down.
Bánh Mì Bò Kho: aromatic beef stew with baguette
Another bowl of aromatic beef stew (this time served with warm baguettes instead of noodles), this bowl of bò kho was enjoyed on a sun-filled morning, in a small, local, lively noodle house before the lock-down.
Bánh Khọt: rice flour batter medallions with shrimp
These delicious, crispy little medallions are made with rice flour batter and coconut milk, coloured with turmeric, and topped with shrimp and spring onions, then wrapped in a large mustard leaf and herbs, before being dipped is a sweet and spicy sauce. A perfectly balanced, crunchy, zesty snack. This dish was served in a normally busy, long-running local eatery; but it was nearly deserted at lunchtime before the lock-down. (Read more about bánh khọt in this guide.)
Phở Bò: beef noodle soup
Another bowl of the ever-popular, ever-present national dish, this is a ‘northern’ (or some might same ‘original’) version of phở bò: a strong, meaty, hearty, aromatic broth with spring onions, chilli and lime, but without the mound of herbs that usually accompanies phở in the south. Served in a large and famous noodle house, but only hosting a couple of diners on an evening before the lock-down.
Cơm Bình Dân: ‘common’ rice lunch
Although the general translation of cơm bình dân is ‘common rice meal’, I think these are some of the most satisfying, delicious, and best-value meals you can have in Vietnam. This one consists of sauteed green beans, fried bitter gourd with egg, pork and tofu stew with quail eggs, cabbage and carrot soup, garlic and chilli dipping sauce, green chillies, and a glass of iced jasmine tea. Price: $1. Eaten outside on the pavement at a calm, shady rice eatery before the lock-down. (Read more about cơm bình dân in this guide.)
Mì Bò Kho: aromatic beef stew with egg noodles
Yet another bowl (the third in this list of last meals before the lock-down) of fragrant beef stew served over fresh egg noodles. Bò kho is, after all, one of the more comforting dishes in Vietnamese cuisine: perhaps I was seeking solace in my food. This was eaten at noon in a quiet noodle shop, on a leafy back-street, served by a lovely woman, a day before she was forced to close due to the lock-down.
Bún Bò Huế: Hue-style spicy beef noodle soup
This meaty, spicy broth hails from Hue, in Central Vietnam, but is a favourite all over the nation. A tangy beef broth with lemongrass poured over rice noodles and served with water mint, morning glory, bean sprouts and lime, bún bò Huế is filling and, somehow, cleansing. This bowl was at one of the last soup houses to remain open before the lock-down.
Phở Bò: beef noodle soup
Another bowl of Vietnam’s best-known dish, this one had a distinctive cinnamon kick and lots of beef brisket. This eatery, on the cusp of the lock-down, was still allowing customers to dine on the premises; the next day it only served take-out.
Cơm Bình Dân: ‘common’ rice lunch
At a large market in the late afternoon I took a seat at a typical, local, rice eatery. Taxi drivers in uniform slouched over their meals while the proprietress simultaneously cooked, served, taught her children a math lesson, and kept conversation with the drivers. I felt a wave of warmth as this meal was served to me: little freshwater stream fish in a salty stew with egg, cabbage soup, a plate of lotus stems and herbs with a garlic fish sauce for dipping, green chillies and steamed rice. This was before the lock-down, when such meals were available up and down the country, everyday, everywhere.
Food After the Lock-Down: take-out rice in a box
Now that a lock-down is in place in most large cities in Vietnam, many food outlets have closed. However, some places remain open and meals are still available, but for take-out only. Sadly, this robs the Vietnamese food scene of its bustling eateries and beautifully presented bowls of noodles, full of colour. These days, when I’m hungry, I head out to a food outlet with my box and flask, load them up with rice, meat, vegetables and juice, and take it all back to eat. I have rice meals mostly, because noodle soups are too messy and complicated to deal with in take-out format. The food is still good, although the variety is not what is used to be and neither is the presentation. But the flavours are still there, the ingredients still available, and value for money is still excellent. And, at least, there’s still some human interaction when ordering the food.