Given that Vietnam was originally a French colony, and given the horror stories we’ve all heard, you could hardly blame me for not wanting to order something called “Banh Chien.” I positively refused even though our guide, Captain, guaranteed that it was NOT cooked dog. He even tried to tell us that “chien” for dog in French, wasn’t spelled the same way as the word we were reading. No takers. I may not remember much of my junior high-school French, but I DO remember that “chien” is dog and “chat” is cat, and neither of those words belong on a menu. I have to say even Susan Feniger balked at that one and she’s like Mikey in the old Life Cereal commercials…she’ll eat anything.
Today we are in Hue (pronounced whey). It’s a much smaller city than Ho Chi Minh and so charming in so many ways, with its brightly colored family “pagodas” and it’s small four-corners markets, and mainly – many less motorbikes.
This is like a miracle, because I hadn’t realized just how nerve jangling it can be hearing a never-ending cacophony of beeping, revving engines, and the zhhhhhz of a moving object going right by your head like a giant hummingbird. The best piece of advice we received about traffic in HCMC (that’s what those of us “in the know” call Ho Chi Minh City) was “don’t stop” when you’re walking across the street. Captain told us “if you stop, you’ll get hit.” It’s the most counterintuitive thing in the world to wade into hordes of moving traffic and not stop, but it actually works. The myriad of bikes and cars really do maneuver around you. By the time we reach Hue, we’re old hands at dealing with traffic.
Also by now, I’ve been acclimated to eating pork and beef at every meal, though I do still balk at whole shell-on shrimp. Our first stop of the morning is a little shop making the best Bun Bo Hue in the entire city. “Bun Bo” is like the Vietnamese Pho soup – but seemingly hardier. A soup of glass noodles, pork dumplings (how could I live without it at this point?), crab dumplings, and braised beef, with Vietnamese greens including Thai basil, all with squeezed lime and sprinkled with crumbled dried shrimp; it’s like the Kellog’s Cornflakes of the culture. The owner, Suan (translated as Spring), was thrilled that Susan had dropped by and sat down to talk, through Captain as the translator. Over our dish of Bun Bo, the soap opera unfolded. Suon, has a daughter, Kim Ngang, in Denver who works in a nail salon owned by her husband’s wealthy family. But Kim Ngang hates the work and hates her in-laws. Her dream is to open her own Bun Bo restaurant right there in Denver. Restaurant permits are very hard to get for a non-citizen, and her husband doesn’t want Kim Ngang to be independent, so neither he nor his wealthy nail-dynasty family will help her. But Suan talks to her from Vietnam and tells her she has to be independent and not under the thumb of her husband. See how infectious this is? What will happen next? By the end of the story we were all crying into our Bun Bo, with Susan promising to try to help Kim Ngang get a permit to open her own restaurant. I swear to god, we were all crying. That’s what Vietnam has done to me.
During Susan’s tale of woe, two little girls were playing with a sleeping dog on the sidewalk. I picked up my camera ‘cause who can resist children and dogs? But as is the way with little girls, the playing and laughing very quickly turned into annoying the dog, and pretty soon it was pulling his ears, lifting his lips, patting his head too hard, and in general reminding me why I hate children.
Next it was on to the rice-cake maker and a restaurant called “Ba Do” for the best Banh in the area. Banh are little different types of banana leaf wrapped tamale–like packages filled with rice milk or sticky rice, and things like shrimp and pork cracklings. When I heard “rice cakes” I thought “Finally. Something I can eat! I love sticky rice.” Sigh.
It seems that Vietnam is constantly challenging me to raise the tolerance level on my “ick factor.” For one thing, do you realize how many flies are constantly on the food in this country? None of the restaurants have any walls or a closed kitchen, so nature is upon you. I like nature. Just not in my food. So on the theme of “things I don’t like,” as I bit into the long-awaited Banh, I suddenly realized that in Vietnam, sticky rice and rice milk are synonymous with tapioca. There’s nothing I hate more in this world than tapioca, even flies on my food. Tapioca says to me “Get this out of your mouth immediately or you will vomit.” And once I was down that road, just for good measure, there was some kind of whole shrimp inside, shell on. Ick. A horrified, inward whimper rose up in me as I looked for somewhere to get rid of the Banh as quickly and quietly as possible. (One might think “a napkin” would be a good place to start, but so far in this country they don’t really have napkins on the tables-they have these tiny squares of tissue paper on which to wipe your fingers then throw on the floor.) And just as I was about to burst into tears, we heard someone in perfect English say: Are you Susan Feniger?! Oh my god, I watched you on Top Chef!” As Susan chatted up her fan from Virginia, it became apparent to me that “the only way out was through” and I swallowed. Ick
Our visit to an orphanage called Thuy Suan Village, was a highlight. There they have a baking program run by a French non-profit that teaches the orphans to be bakers, then helps them find work. There’s even a famous bakery in Hue, where the products baked by the orphans are sold. Susan was immediately surrounded by curious baking-boys who proudly gave her a tour of their kitchen. They all spoke a smattering of English, which was very impressive, and we tasted some of their vanilla custard cake which was delicious, after I got the flies off of it. By the end of our visit, she had exchanged e-mail addresses with one of them and had graciously received their gift of a stuffed Mister Potato Head doll.
We drove out into the country so Susan could have her fortune told by an old Vietnamese medium. It turned out that the toothless, deeply lined, white-haired, tiny lady (who had perfectly painted toenails, we both noticed) had much to say about Susan’s future. I must remember to tell Josh and Mary Sue that eventually Josh will return to Susan, and evidently Mary Sue’s two children are actually Susan’s.
On the way home, we stopped to look at the expansive rice fields, worked mostly by women in iconic triangle hats (called Nong La), and the many grazing buffalo. The serenity is all encompassing in many parts of this country. To get a better view we walked out into the fields and had to jump over some of the water-ways. I now have video of Susan victoriously leaping across the tiny canal…right into a pile of buffalo crap.
I love Hue. Oh, and Banh Chien? It turned out to be fried rice.