Eating Well in the Neighborhood
Growing up in Nebraska, my dining routine consisted of daily servings of meat, potatoes, and canned vegetables. Fast forward a few decades and my culinary horizons have expanded through extensive travels around the world. I still have a dislike for beets and onions, but I’m open to trying anything with lemongrass and curry. I have explored the streets of numerous countries, searching for culinary revelations, but my recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia introduced a whole new world of experiences. (Literally and metaphorically!)
Vietnam’s Coffee Culture
As the second largest producer of coffee beans in the world, it is no surprise that Vietnamese social life revolves around a cup of coffee. While we may view coffee as a way to kick-start our day with caffeine, for the Vietnamese, it is an opportunity to casually socialize with friends, discuss news, or simply enjoy a break from work.
Our first stop in Hanoi was Cafe Dinh, a hidden gem tucked away on a backstreet, known only by coffee enthusiasts. Iced coffee is particularly popular as a way to combat the sweltering heat, and it can be flavored with coconut or caramel. However, the highlight at Cafe Dinh is their signature egg coffee. This unique concoction consists of pressed coffee sweetened with condensed milk and topped off with a whipped egg yolk. It takes you on a caffeine-infused journey into Vietnam’s coffee culture.
What’s up with Phở?
I always find myself thrilled by the unfamiliar, and during a chance stroll, I discovered the delightful aromas, sights, and sounds that fill the streets of Hanoi. Navigating through these crowded pathways, filled with parked motor scooters and vegetable vendors, is an adventure in exploration. It is here that you can find the street food stalls, renowned as the gastronomic treasures of the city. You’ll encounter grilled mystery meats, dried fish, water buffalo jerky, tantalizing skewered treats, and, of course, the ubiquitous Phở.
No dish is more representative of Hanoi than this steaming bowl of broth, thinly sliced meat, and rice noodles, topped with an array of leafy herbs, bean sprouts, chiles, and drizzled with a sweet fish sauce. While established restaurants offer creative and comforting variations, nothing quite compares to hunching over a tiny plastic stool inches above the pavement, savoring a fifty cent bowl of hearty broth prepared by a street vendor.
Consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this elevated version of Grandma’s chicken noodle soup packs a punch. Phở Hanoi, Phở Saigon, Phở Bo (beef), Phở Ga (chicken), shrimp, pork – the possibilities are endless. It is touted as comfort food, capable of curing hangovers and diseases alike.
End the day with a fifty cent beer, perched on a street-side stool, and witness the chaos of rush hour as hundreds of motor scooters battle for nonexistent right-of-ways. Alternatively, you can partake in a shot of local rice wine, or even venture into the realm of a moonshine beverage fermented with a floating deceased snake, adding a significant touch of uneasiness. Need I say more?
Because I’m Happy
In a previous article for Porthole.com linked here, I mentioned the peculiar selection of street food in Siem Reap, Cambodia – an assortment that includes snakes, rodents, and creepy crawling creatures. I draw the line at those, although I am not averse to indulging in a few salted crispy crickets alongside a refreshing glass of Angkor beer. However, things take a peculiar turn from there. Cambodia is renowned for its Happy Pizza, a pizza infused with herbs that were commonly enjoyed at events like Woodstock! Before you make any judgments, allow me to (sarcastically) emphasize that I only tried the Happy Pizza for the sake of journalistic research.
As a pizza, it is nothing extraordinary, but it is the essential sprinkle of cannabis that induces the munchies and a fit of giggles. Despite marijuana being illegal in Cambodia, local authorities seem to turn a blind eye to the Happy Pizza establishments. However, be warned that the rules against drug use on the streets in Cambodia are strictly enforced.
Stay curious, stay safe, and enjoy your time in Southeast Asia.