Whenever people ask me how I ended up in New York after college, I have to go back to my semester in Vietnam. I was a History major and concentrated on Cold War American society (specifically how the Vietnam War affected American society) and this is how I found myself headed to Vietnam in August 2008. Little did I know my “career path” would change after my 5 months there.
There is something about Vietnamese food culture that captivated me from the moment I landed. Eating a meal is about sitting with friends and neighbors and sharing what you have created from simple ingredients that were cultivated from your family land- land that has been yours for generations. I will always remember being in Nha Trang (South/Central Vietnam) and out on a boat with the entire CIEE group (which was only 19 of us). We had been on the boat all day when we were lead to the roof where a feast of fresh seafood had been prepared for us. It was the moment I decided I wanted to get into the food industry and be as close to good, simple, local food as possible.
My friends, Chris and Summer, enjoying the food on the roof of the boat
This morning Nick sent me an article from the New York Times about a man’s relationship with food in Vietnam. Reading it, I was brought back to my own journey with Vietnamese cuisine . I will always remember my first morning there. I stumbled out of our hotel in the backpackers district in Saigon and I had no idea how to find something to eat. I wasn’t nearly as adventurous with food as I am now and I was all by myself, in a city I did not know, surrounded by a language I could not understand. I walked down our block and stumbled upon a bahn mi cart (I did not know this is what it was at the time). I pointed at something that looked remotely breakfast-like- little did I know that the pho restaurant right behind it would have been the right choice for a true Vietnamese breakfast. What I pointed at was something like a dumpling so I just bit into it. I had no idea what was inside, so I wrapped it up and brought it back to the hotel to find one of our directors so he could tell me what it was. Inside my “breakfast dumpling” was a soft boiled quail egg. I couldn’t finish it knowing what it was.
Looking back, I’m sad I couldn’t appreciate how special that first meal was and how delicious it could have been. I ended up throwing it away and waiting until lunch to eat again but I wish I had just enjoyed experiencing something different. My daily routine did turn into going to a “people’s food” store front twice a day that was located just across the street from our hotel. I would go first thing in the morning for a bahn mi with a fried egg on top and again for lunch for a bbq pork chop with sauteed greens with garlic and rice (exactly what the author describes in the article above). I miss those days of being in the warm sunshine, eating a simple meal that cost less than 75 cents.
I cannot wait to go back to Vietnam (hopefully soon) and experience the food all over again but, this time, with a much better appreciation for just how special Vietnamese food culture really is.