Uncle Ho was a wily old goat.
In between helping to found the Vietnamese Communist Party, write manifestos in five languages and mobilise one of the largest guerrilla campaigns in military history, the man whose mug today adorns every hearth in Vietnam was the original Naked Chef.
Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of modern Vietnam, was classically trained and once worked under Auguste Escoffier in Paris.
Not convinced? Try joining the funereal procession skirting his glass-walled coffin in Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
The wry smile dancing about the big man’s lips can only belong to someone who went out on a good meal.
There’s no better way to get to know a country than to explore its cuisine and there’s no better hotbed of culinary excellence in South East Asia than Vietnam.
Forget Cambodia with its psychedelic ‘happy meals’ and Laos with its sticky rice fixation. Jamie Oliver has got nothing on Vietnam’s healthy eating formula of fresh produce and simple dishes.
Trinh Diem Vy, a successful restaurateur, whose base is Hoi An, the most picturesque stop-off on the Lonely Planet ant trail, explains:
“Vietnamese food is all about ying and yang; balancing flavours to restore balance to the body via diet.”
“Vietnamese food is a fusion of influences from France, China and India,” adds Vy, who runs cooking schools from her upscale White Lantern restaurant and recently filmed a pilot for an Asian cookery series for Australian television.
In Hanoi, the French–influenced capital with its colonial facades, the market tour proved to be an exhilarating sensory overload.
Wizened old crones in conical hats jostled squawking chickens while the air hung heavy with the smell of durian, seafood and nuoc mam – the ubiquitous fermented fish sauce that, along with rice, forms the staple of the Vietnamese diet.
All around, trays groaned under the weight of fresh tamarind, star anise and plump chillies the colour of a Mekong sunset.
Anthony Bourdain, author of A Cook’s Tour, loves Vietnam and describes its national dish of pho, a beef noodle soup, thus:
“A hot, complex, refined yet unbelievably simple. The whole experience is overwhelmingly perfect.”
With this in mind I joined the 7am crowds at Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Pho is Vietnam in a bowl, a perfect example of Vietnam’s adherence to the concept of balancing the five flavours, namely salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot.
It takes a lot to get me excited at this time of the morning but the spicy broth was delicious with strips of succulent beef and chewy rice noodles ideal for hearty slurping.
Across town, backpackers, waking from hard night at the Apocalypse Now nightclub, would soon be tucking into their anodyne banana pancakes and mango smoothies on Hang Bac, Hanoi’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
For me, however, perched on a tiny plastic stool in a Hanoi street kitchen, I’d discovered gastro nirvana costs less than a dollar.
Even the blasts of exhaust fumes from the passing motorbikes couldn’t put me off a second bowl.
As our group of Asiaphiles, foodies and the downright curious alike moved south from Hanoi, we found Vietnam’s regional cuisine reflected changes in the landscape with an increasingly complexity of ingredients and use of spices.
In the ancient capital Hue, known for its ancient citadels and boat trips on the Perfume River, tour parties are treated to some of Vietnam’s fanciest royal meals based on dishes from the erstwhile king’s banquets.
The ruler used to gorge on 50 different dishes at each sitting and, even today, Hue cuisine places an emphasis on numerous small dishes with high levels of presentation.
Eschewing the pomp and pageantry, however, I headed eight kilometres west out of town to the Truc Lam (Bamboo forest) pagoda.
A rural temple where Buddhist monks come to train in martial arts, its vegetarian meals are a study in ying and yang simplicity against a backdrop of beautiful tranquillity.
The local speciality, banh khoai, a crispy pancake eaten with starfruit, green banana and peanut sauce was amongst the highlights.
I could have stayed a week, banishing the acrid taste of corporate coffee shops and tepid airline meals from my palette forever, but the road to Saigon beckoned with delicacies to sample en route.
In the ancient port of Hoi An, generations of traders have left their mark on the town both architecturally and gastronomically.
Here, cao lau, a broth of rice-flour noodles with bean sprouts and pork rind based on Japanese soba, and banh bao, steamed flour parcels of crab meat known as white rose, are the local speciality dishes.
To savour these, I waited for dusk to set over the over the waterfront and went to seek out Mr Kim at the Café Des Amis.
Kim has made Hoi An, with its ochre-tinted facades and sleepy Mediterranean fishing village vibe, his home. He has also built a strong reputation for his French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine “plus imagination.”
The deal is simple: no menu, just turn up and crack a cold beer while Mr Kim serves up local specialities and whatever else takes his fancy according to what was fresh and plentiful at the market that morning.
If in ‘bon esprit’, he’ll regale you over dinner with tales of his former life as the official food taster for the South Vietnamese army. If not, he simply sits out front and smokes lustily under the stars while listening to his scratchy old Billie Holiday records.
By the time I’d made past the R ’n R beach resorts of Nha Trang and the alpine hill station of Da Lat to Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh city, I’d taken to drinking both my coffee and beer over ice to stave off the swelling humidity.
Saigon plays the brash urban upstart to Hanoi’s refined leafy boulevards and the cuisine reflects its urbane pretensions with coconut milk sweets, spicy banh xeo and a fledgling nouvelle cuisine scene amongst the nods to international influences.
Being a city of commerce, everyone is on the go. So, as the sun set over Saigon, I headed upwards to suck on a cold beer from the rooftop beer garden of the Rex Hotel and survey the scene.
Women boiled noodles and fried meat on pavement griddles, cycle drivers chewed on tooth picks and sunk glasses of bia hoi, a watered down lager, between rides and the young urban elite circled the central district on their Honda Dream motorbikes, their new fake Nikes hovering over the gas.
Across town, evening class at the Women’s Cultural House of Ho Chi Minh City were just starting.
The students busied themselves over bubbling pans and spitting woks amid the rabbit warren of tiny classrooms as the principal, Trieu Thi Choi, glided regally through the corridors.
More Delia than Nigella in a ruby ao dai, her hair was tied back in a severe bun and rocks the size of Laos troubled her immaculately manicured fingers.
Miss Choi, who set up the school in 1982 and today regularly appears on Vietnamese television cookery shows, beams:
“I teach my girls all they need to know to be a good wife: flower arranging, sewing, hairdressing and, most of all, cookery.”
“I’m learning to make celebration dishes for the Phat Dan festival. My husband is a terrible cook,” smiled Huong, a keen student, before returning hurriedly to her hob, as Miss Choi breezed past.
Fifties gender roles may persist at the Women’s Cultural House but Miss Choi’s army of domestic goddesses were producing some of the most impressive gastroporn creations this side of Nobu.
For my final supper in Saigon, I joined the action at street level once more.
The Vietnamese have two rules about food: they eat early (lunch by noon, dinner by 6pm) and eat en famille. And, even at the heart of the city, these two maxims were still keenly observed.
Around me, smiling families were perched on plastic stools – the smell of fresh coriander jostled gasoline for prominence.
From a street kitchen with a fine vista across to the opera house, I tucked into a French style steak (bittet) served on a bed of fried macaroni with starter of freshly rolled cha gio (spring rolls).
The essential chilli and lime flavoured dipping sauce complemented the flavours.
As the last drop of my coffee dribbled languidly through the filter, I grabbed a copy of the Viet Nam News, the local English language daily, from boy peddling papers from a rusty bicycle.
The paper lead with a story that nine people had been hospitalised after eating a poisonous puffer fish, bought from Hanoi’s Truong Dinh Market.
At least, I thought, as I handed over payment (the equivalent of one dollar for a feast), they’d gone out with full bellies and smiles on their faces.
Somehow, I suspect, Uncle Ho would have approved.
Liked this? Try this Rev it up across northern Vietnam.
And post your comments below.