If you've ever wanted to try being a vegetarian but don't want to make a full time commitment just yet, then a trip to Vietnam by way of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) would be a good way to sample life as one.
Talk about getting your daily vegetable requirement.
We took a trip late 2009 (I was with my beloved and a very good friend of ours) and owing to our busy schedules, we opted to take a very short trip (4 days) and decided to just stay in one place (HCMC). It turned out to be a food feast - and thus far, my knowledge of Vietnamese food had been relegated to an occasional visit to the local Pho Hoa in Manila (either in Greenbelt or Galleria).
I did read up on Vietnamese cuisine (as you can see from the above picture, I brought my Lonely Planet: Vietnam guide with me) and they all describe Vietnamese cuisine as omnivorous - if it flies, crawls, slithers, they'll eat it. In short, nothing was off-limits. I have to say I wasn't too sure how to take that bit of information - I am not the most adventurous eater, as my beloved would attest. Luckily, in the hotel that we stayed in, there was a set breakfast of either pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, the signature national dish) or French baguette. So I only had to worry about lunch and dinner.
It turned out that I worried for nothing. (In my mind, I could see honey covered beetles being forced down my throat.)
Vietnamese cuisine, from my experience, is light, flavorful, and fun. It did not have the strong, distinct oomph that characterizes Thai cuisine, but then, Thai cuisine isn't for everyone. The one constant I saw in all the dishes we had was the abundance of vegetables - every dish came with some kind of vegetable variation and it's safe to say most of their diet consisted of pho and vegetables (I understand that pho is largely a breakfast meal for the Vietnamese, although they do eat it at all times of the day as well. This might also explain why we were hard pressed to find an full-figured local in our time there.)
Now, take the banh xeo as an example.
An egg "pancake" filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken or pork and other local vegetables (I noticed that different restaurants/eateries would have different vegetables inside their version of the banh xeo), and if I had to estimate, bean sprouts comprised 60% of the filling, 20% for the other vegetables, and 20% for the rest of the ingredients. On top of that, basil, mint other leaves also adorned the outside of the dish, so really, there's no escaping the green.
(The few times I was in Pho Hoa, I would only order chicken pho. So the trip to Vietnam proved to be an eye-opener, a delicious gustatory trip to be precise.)
Vietnamese cuisine is also known for their seafood, so we tried the dish above - no formal name, really, as it said "Mixed Seafoods and Vegetables" in the menu. Again, another pleasant surprise, as the variety of seafood was good - squid, shrimp, fish - and of course, the ever-present vegetables, which in this dish seemed like an even 50-50 split between the seafoods and the vegetables.
Of course, we could not leave Vietnam without sampling THE dish it is known for.
As well as a dish that I also order at Pho Hoa, fresh spring rolls.
The surprise in both dishes is how fresh and clean everything tasted, without you feeling like you just plopped your mouth in your outside garden. The amount and variety of vegetables in both these staples of Vietnamese cuisine reshaped my earlier conceptions of Vietnamese food. Talk about jazzing up a classic - or more accurately, "this is how it should be done". Don't get me wrong, our local Pho Hoa serves more than passable Vietnamese food, but seeing and tasting it in Vietnam is an experience that will stay with you for a long time.
We even stopped by the side of the road for our lunch from a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the lady in what looks to be their version of our sari-sari store served us a plate of dried flat rice pancakes which were stiff, then a plate of water in which to dip and soften the sheet, and fill it up with the vegetables she was growing in her backyard - talk about eating locally! (Unfortunately, we ran out of battery for the camera and have to contend with reliving this experience only by memory.)
If you ever had any doubt that vegetables are a staple in their cuisine, check out this last picture, which I am sure every Pinoy will recognize.
Yes, that is a Jollibee ChickenJoy 1 piece meal in Vietnam (of course, we just had to see what Jollibee tasted like in other countries). True to form, a third of the meal was green, and if you look at the Champ burger, all you can think of is, "What burger? It's all veggies!"
Like all good things, our trip ended. But not before I was reminded of what their "light" (read: normal, everyday) traffic looked like:
But that is for another time, another post.