Glutton Onboard: Giving up the ghost in Vietnam

Beef pho near Ha Long Bay

I can’t believe I truly thought it would be possible, but I really believed that I would be able to maintain — perhaps even lose! — my weight on this cruise. Well, every remaining shred of delusion I might have had when it comes to my weight has been ripped away by my experience in Vietnam, where every second of my visit was taken over with thoughts about what I was eating at the time, and when I wasn’t eating, then thoughts about what I was about to eat. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been to Vietnam before, but did not spend every second of my time planning my next meal. Whatever was I doing?

The truth is that I’ve come to appreciate Vietnam over time; it’s not a “love at first sight” kind of thing like I’ve had with Istanbul or Tokyo. My first visit to Hanoi was in the early 2000s, when Karen and I stayed in a hotel where ants roamed freely over our morning baguettes. The meals we had were a total blur, and my most vivid memory of that trip was of Karen purchasing a bottle of snake wine for her brother-in-law, only to have it break open in her suitcase, permeating her clothes with its unique smell.

So I’ve always thought I was fair-to-neutral on Vietnamese food … that is, until this trip. Because I’ve had my head blown off daily by what I’ve been eating, even when it’s vegetarian, even when I’m already full, even when it’s 100 degrees outside and I shouldn’t be hungry at all. Even when it’s in Northern Vietnam, where I believed the food was more, shall we say, “gently flavored”. Even when it’s a place where Anthony Bourdain once ate. Vietnam has blown me away, and I think I am truly in love.

Our first meal was at a place paradoxically named “Pho Thin”, in Ha Long Bay (Só 125, Du’òng 25/4, Ha Long). Although everyone in our party was determined to have some good beef pho (which was really good, don’t get me wrong, see photo above), I felt like doing a little stroll on the wild side by pointing at photos and gesticulating wildly, a method that made me super popular with our bemused waiter. I honestly don’t know what I ordered, but I know what I got: a rice dish that came out of a giant vat looking like this:

The rice dish, which I STILL do not know the name of, came with stir-fried slices of beef mixed with pickled vegetables.

The other dish, which I believe was pho xeo, or “stirfried noodles”, was an entire platter of stir-fried noodles, soft and pillowy, with another platter of stir-fried beef with garlic on the side, both enough for a Thai family of four.

Set at each table was a battery of accompaniments, including fish sauce, pickled garlic in its juice, fresh limes and chilies, an entire container of MSG, and THREE different chili sauces. Interestingly, none of these sauces were like the American-style Sriracha sauce; two, however, were similar in flavor to the Thai kind. Everything was good enough that I didn’t notice until after the meal that one of the sauces I had been using liberally was months past its expiration date.

On a tour excursion to a Zen monastery the following day, we lunched at a vegetarian restaurant housed in a sort of park that sought to recreate the Vietnamese village experience, but with $300 agar wood bracelets and knick knacks. Even in the midst of this Epcot Center nonsense, I was delighted. Our guides literally showered us in food, a near-unending parade of dishes so numerous that our table couldn’t hold it all: lotus roots with goji berries, two types of soup, a scrumptious eggplant stir fry, veggie tempura, imitation baby clams on a giant sesame cracker, more veggie stir fries, etc. A particular favorite of mine were the mushrooms cooked in coconut juice and plated in an empty gourd.

The next day, we alighted on Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the streets are mobbed with tourists and rickshaws pulled by porters shouting “beep beep” at you every 10 seconds. In spite of all this, I absolutely loved it. Registering our interest in banh mi, our guide dutifully took us to the extremely packed Banh Mi Phuong, made famous from Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show. Of course, his visage was featured prominently on the wall, as well as on the sandwich wrappers. While our guide recommended the “mixed” banh mi, my favorites were the cheese with onion, as well as the cheese with garlic (I’m basic when it comes to banh mi).

After Hoi An, we headed south to Ho Chi Minh City, where on yet another tour excursion we were generously invited to make pork-and-shrimp dumplings. It will come as little surprise to discover that I am not very good at making my own dumplings. I am, however, good at eating them.

Superior dumpling makers

Besides the wontons (they wisely fed us with the ones they’d made, because we would have refused to eat our own), deep-fried with a sweet chili dipping sauce, they gave us bowls of the wontons with shrimp in a clear pork broth, as well as the pork meat used to make the broth itself:

Needless to say, I enjoyed myself yet again, and did so on the next day as well, when, post-tai chi routine in the park (done to stirring music, with enormous fans), we visited a vegan restaurant called Ba Xa, which roughly translates to “my wife”. To our amazement and delight, we were told we could order one of anything we wanted, but no one else on the tour wanted to coordinate and share our orders (too much like socialism?), so my daughter, sister-in-law and I each made a mini-meal: the “wife holding hands” noodles, the “wife salad” (version 1), and deep-fried spring rolls.

Wife holding hands noodles
Wife salad 1

The dishes were genuinely good — so much so that it was not until halfway through our meal that I noticed that the stuff I was seeing on the TV screen on the wall was genuinely bonkers: an Asian woman who dressed up in various different outfits complete with detailed makeup — as a red-headed white man, as a black woman, as an older white man dressed as a leprechaun — exhorting the benefits of veganism and condemning meat eaters to die in the flames of hell.

Unwilling to stop our marathon of Vietnamese food and just waddle back off to the ship, we continued on in town, opting to walk to our next stop: Mama Pho, thankfully air-conditioned, and again outfitted with Thai-style Sriracha sauce. Even with our tummies bursting, we ordered a bowl each: the standard Mama pho, in a broth of beef bones, ginger, burnt onion, cardamom, star anise and cinnamon, all boiled for 18 hours; a pho in a beef stew broth; and a “dry pho” of mushrooms and tofu, which in Thailand is basically “nam yak”, or the broth served separately in a different bowl. This one was my favorite, which was lucky because it was my own order (sharing is socialist!).

It was after our second lunch, and only then, when we deemed ourselves ready to go back to the ship. Completely stuffed, we managed to run to catch the waiting shuttle bus without throwing up. We boarded the ship on time and without incident.

Back at the room waiting for me were three banh mi sandwiches, brought back by my husband. Of course, I ate them.


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5 responses to “Glutton Onboard: Giving up the ghost in Vietnam

  1. As soon as I finished the last sentence, I sent it to two different friends–one who just left Hoi Anh and one who has spent a lot of time there. To hell with the calories! Rejoice!

  2. The ants! The snake wine! The traffic! I also remember stumbling (multiple times!) into the murky, filth street gutters in open-toed sandals. Gag me.

  3. Alan Katz

    Wouldn’t you like to review restaurants for the Bangkok Post? Then you could write about mouthfeel.

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