It took 25 hours of pure travel – cab, plane, shuttle, plane, cab – but I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City intact and on time.
I was warned to expect chaos on motorbikes, but unexpected was the degree to which my NYC-hardened senses would be immediately overloaded upon arrival. Ho Chi Minh City, sometimes referred to as the “Motorbike Capital of the World” and almost always referred to as its former name of Saigon, houses over five million motorbikes in addition to its human population of over 8.2 million.
I met my tour guide about ten minutes late after an emergency shower, and he squashed my dreams of napping with clear directions to be back in the lobby in 20 minutes unless I wanted to skip dinner.
I never skip dinner.
A painfully nap-less 20 minutes inched by, and I met my fellow travel companions as they trickled into the hotel’s lobby. The first day of my several-week long backpacking journey across Southeast Asia coincided with day eight of many of my companions’ trip. The group head count revealed that we would be traveling minus one, and the details of the woman’s absence would shortly play out as a very inappropriate conversation to be had while eating. Discussing the details of another’s food poisoning never makes for a nice dinner conversation.
I heard and then immediately forgot everyone’s name on our walk over to a restaurant that could comfortably seat 17 people. When we took our seats at the very long table, we displaced a fairly large family of cockroaches, and I was surprised by the lack of yelps coming from my group when the creatures scattered. An Irish companion shared that I should expect roaches, mice and rats in every restaurant if her last week was any indication. She was not incorrect in her warning.
Ordering dinner was a no-brainer: Pho and a cold(ish) beer. I opted for the local Saigon beer, and I thought, according to my travel-weathered and loopy-at-the-time brain, that the waitress was trying to pull a fast one on me by asking me New Mexico’s state question: red or green? She repeated her question, and I asked for the difference between the two. From her description, the difference seemed negligible, and I didn’t get a clear answer until a Brit from my group, two people down and clearly invested in my dilemma chimed in: “She’ll take the green one: it’s cheaper.” And so it was decided.
Bia Saigon Lager, also know as “the green one” is a light, golden lager with a nice finish – a little less bitter than its red counterpart, Saigon Export – and so it quickly became my beer of choice while in the region and when I wasn’t consuming a freshly made fruit juice. The light lager cut through spice well and also paired perfectly with the smokiness of a traditional Vietnamese barbeque.
When planning my trip, I expected to attend a traditional Vietnamese barbeque as we ventured north of Saigon, but the setting of such lay in a poorly ventilated open-air room with high ceilings and short stools. Unexpected was my abrupt decision to go full vegetarian at the barbeque. I fed into my group’s anti-meat agenda when it was revealed that about two thirds of the group fell victim to food poisoning after their first Cambodian barbeque. My inner Andrew Zimmern wanted to roast some frog’s legs and a various array of cow innards, but I was convinced to partake in the vegetarian barbeque after catching a glimpse of a small but abundant garden where many of the vegetables I was about to fire up were grown.
After ordering the second of two options – meat or vegetables – we waited for our “grill” to be gingerly balanced on our seemingly flimsy but unexpectedly sturdy plastic picnic table. The fire in the small stone portable barbeque kit – similar, I’m assuming, to that of Fred Flintstone’s – evenly cooked my okra, onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms. I carved out a spot for myself on the grill that could hold about three vegetables comfortably, and while they cooked, I mixed my own dipping sauce using an array of spices, fresh lemon and lime juice and sauces on our table. By the time my veggies were charred and blistered, I had finished assembling my bowl of rice dressed with my sauce, and I would replace my section of the grill with three more vegetables before I started to eat. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
My decision to be a fish-eating vegetarian at the barbeque lasted, inadvertently, through the full duration of my backpacking journey as I found that the vegetables and the fish were the freshest options on the menu, typically either caught or picked only days if not hours before consumption. The “farm-to-table” movement had and is still having its moment in Western countries, but for the Vietnamese, it is their daily life – minus the frills.
I arrived in Hoi An hungry. I rushed past the infamous tailors in its Ancient City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to go directly to its equally famed farmer’s market.
The stalls were tightly packed, the colors were vibrant and the negotiations were tough. Two women, situated across from each other and both selling fish, erupted in anger in what I surmised as a turf war. My Cambodian guide told me that they were mad at each other. It was in the stalls of this market where the produce for my dinner that I would eventually make for myself in a cooking class would be purchased.
With each farmer’s market that I visited throughout my time in Vietnam, I questioned every time I had ever punctured a two-inch slit in a Lean Cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with an expeditious dinner, but my cooking class street cred combined with my growing propensity to question any meal that was not made with locally sourced ingredients from that day was turning me into an insufferable farm-to-table foodie snob. So, obviously, I jumped on the opportunity to take a bike trip through several local farms, embracing my new persona.
The first stop was to a farm that raised oxen. Only days before had I purchased the ox leather backpack that I was wearing (I never claimed to be a good fish-eating vegetarian…), and I knew that the ox sensed this. Our guide informed us that we were going to stop at the farm for a while where we could each take a turn to ride an ox. With a presumed relative on my back, I turned down the opportunity and ate a pineapple instead.
The farmer who masterfully handled his ox, yipped and yee-hawed like the best of his cowboy counterparts. So happy in his field like every other farmer I met in this country, I started to think deep thoughts about the root(s) of happiness (Author’s note: please forgive me. I blame the lack of meat).
And then we found it: rice whiskey.
“No wonder everyone here is so happy!” said several of my companions upon first sip of the 70% ABV “wine.” After leaving the ox farm, we ventured to a small village with a very well run rice whiskey operation, and we had the opportunity to take a sip. Strong would be a understatement.
The last farm on our tour boasted a medley of spicy peppers. Only the young man in my group who had more than a sip of rice whiskey was willing to try one of the peppers before his instant regret. Two of the farmers who lived on the land, a couple who have been together for over 60 years, came to visit with us. We were limited by language to hold a full conversation, but their smile-y and almost child-like energy was infectious.
Their answer to a long and happy life? Rice whiskey.
Lindsey Frick left her corporate job in online marketing to travel the world. The first stop on her tour? Spending several weeks backpacking through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. When she’s not traveling, she’s experimenting in the kitchen, lost in a book or training for a half marathon — and taking many pictures along the way. You can follow her adventures on her Instagram page.
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