Travel Far, Eat Local
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
A changing country with firm roots in traditional culture. Oh, there's also noodles.
Vietnam changed me. It opened my eyes to a part of our world I had little knowledge about, almost as of it had been hiding in plain sight my whole life. I fell in love with the food, the people, the serene beauty of the country. My time there was akin to stepping through a doorway, crossing a threshold through which I can not return. From the moment I arrived, I knew my life had changed. This was my first time in Asia, and the thought -- which permeates my brain to this day -- was "How can I come back and travel here regularly? What changes in my life need to happen in order for me to come back here, to come back to Asia?"
I knew next to nothing about Vietnam – sure, I had read and watched reports, blogs, vlogs, etc. for literally years exploring Vietnamese food and culture. Finally, I had to experience for myself the signs, sounds, people, and tastes that I had for so long witnessed only through text and video.
We started our trip in Hanoi. If there is one phrase I can use to describe Hanoi, it would be this: Organized Chaos. Motorbikes zip through the streets in all directions at various speeds. What about traffic signals and signs, you ask? Yea, they exist, but are seemingly mere suggestions in Vietnam. Crossing intersections is a choreographed dance between motorbike, rickshaw drivers, and pedestrians. I don't know how it works without several people being severely maimed on a daily basis, but it does work. And it's beautiful in its chaos, its pure unadulterated form. Hanoi is an old city, having been colonized by many outside invaders like the Japanese and Americans. However, no one left quite as much of an indelible mark on the edifices of Hanoi than the French. French colonial architecture dominates the Hanoi landscape, and these buildings jut out at you from every angle. The streets are composed in a hap-hazard, disorganized fashion. Modern-day motorbikes race through the labyrinth of Hanoi urban planning aside decades-old architecture as past meets present.
And then there is the smell. Aromas of steaming bowls of noodles in broth, grilled pork, seared offal. For any foodie, gastro-tourist, food traveler -- whatever you want to call us -- traveling to Hanoi (or Vietnam in general) is almost a religious experience. The city is literally awash with street stalls and women selling produce on street corners and out of wicker baskets hanging on bicycles. You cannot walk more than a few meters in any direction without slamming into a street vendor selling phở bo, bún chả, bún riêu, bánh cuốn, or any number of Vietnamese dishes. And the food is good, really good.
Don't get me wrong -- I always have (and always will) elected to eat from the street stall or local haunt over the fancy restaurant, whether I'm abroad or at home. But Vietnam was different. The experience of eating street food was more visceral for me, almost reticent. There were many times where I thought to myself "How has this existed my whole life and I'm only now discovering it?" Sitting on a low plastic stool in the street, eating a bowl of steaming noodles for breakfast on a cool, misty morning with motorbikes racing through the streets, incessant honking of horns, the rush of people traveling to work... everything sped up and slowed down simultaneously. No servers, no menu, no fuss. Just simple, phenomenally good food from some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever met in my travels.
Wherever I travel, I generally start my introduction to a new place by visiting the local market. It’s always a good idea when in a foreign country or city, as it gives you a quick idea of what locals are eating, cooking, and what types of meats, produce, and dishes are available to try. Typically, in my experience, it is also where you tend to find the best and most authentic local food, particularly if you can find a market a decent ways away from any tourist attractions.
Dong Ba market in Huế is a prime example. After spending several days in Hanoi, we caught a flight to Huế, which is located just adjacent to Vietnam’s central highlands, in the (you guessed it) central part of the country. Dong Bar market is a vast complex of indoor and outdoor food vendors serving literally ANYTHING you can think of related to food. And from the minute you enter the market, it is pure chaos – people flying past you with carts of meat, produce; vendors hailing you from stalls to try their food; meats baking under the midday Vietnam sun; steaming broth emanating from literally everywhere, herbs and spices palliate your senses. The smell overwhelms you, takes you in. If there is one dish -- one quintessential meal -- that you are going to have in Huế, please make it Bún Bo Huế. This is a noodle soup served with rice vermicelli, beef, coagulated blood cake served in a aromatic and intensely flavorful lemongrass broth. It is the dish to try in Huế, native to the city and region. This dish is ubiquitous in Huế -- we ate it on street corners in Huế proper as well as roadside stalls miles outside of the city center. Despite the common base for the soup and widespread availability, you will find minor variations from place to place. However, deep inside Dong Ba market, you can find a woman selling her own Bún Bo Huế version -- you can see a picture of her on my Instagram here. I'm not going to pretend I found this incredible meal on my own (that credit goes to the late and great Anthony Bourdain), however, it did take some serious persistence to hunt her down in the maze that is Dong Ba market. Do yourself a favor and find her inside this market, eat her food... you will not be disappointed.
I don't know about you, but for me, there is something quite settling and comforting about seeing a stall owner with every single part of an animal splayed out for human consumption – sure, sure the meat is there for the taking. But what about the heart? Intestines? Kidneys, liver, lungs? Oh yea, all of it – here they use every part of the animal. For any trip to Huế, I highly recommend visiting this authentic market where you can find any number of amazing Vietnamese dishes and more than a few locals to share it with.
Like I said above, Vietnam changed me. And it’s not simply because I found food that simply floored me – I mean, I knew it was going to be amazing. Vietnam was so much more. I was blown away by how friendly the locals are – genuinely happy to engage us in conversation, learn about our culture, and help us with anything we needed. I felt welcomed from the moment I landed until the minute I left. I’ve traveled through continental Europe, the UK, South America, sub-saharan Africa, but I now feel a connection to Asia unlike I have with any other place I’ve ever been. It’s exhilarating, exciting, beautiful. It is a part of the world I will be visiting again, quite soon.