We met the guide around 6pm and set off to collect three other travelers — Rachel (American, in the Air Force), Leigh (American, unemployed backpacker), and Serena (South African, chef) — all of whom were well-traveled and adventurous.
By 10pm, we had walked all over the Old Quarter and sampled fourteen different dishes, most of them prepared by women cooking on the street corners or sidewalks. Whenever we were faced with a choice (e.g., beef or eel?) we chose the more adventurous option — we hadn’t come here to wimp out, right? And boy, was it worth it! Everything we ate (even the worms!) was delicious. The flavors were surprisingly complex and subtle, with fresh herbs, marinades, and other ingredients that blending to create wonderful, unexpected flavors.
By the time we’d finished our last bowl of fruit (sitting on those tiny plastic stools that clog all the sidewalks), we were full and felt like we’d made new friends. We exchanged contact information and set out into the darkness, excited at the prospect of doing more of these food tours in days to come.
|Vanessa, JJD, Rachel, Leigh, Serena|
Banana flower salad
Grilled fish in rice paper wraps
The fish (don’t remember what type it was) was grilled with onions and fennel. All of the other ingredients (cucumber, carrots, coriander, lettuce, peanuts, rice paper) were served separately. You wrapped each portion separately, selecting only the items you wanted, and dipping the whole into a sweet and tangy sauce.
Filled with pork and mushrooms, this was the lightest spring roll I’ve ever eaten.
The guide stopped in front of this stall and asked if we’d ever eaten worms before. “Come again?” we all said, hoping we’d misheard. But we hadn’t. He explained that the ruoi worms are collected in the brackish waters where rivers meet the sea, and that they’re an enormous delicacy — far more expensive than beef or pork. They’re fried up in the form of little fritters with spices and herbs. If the guide hadn’t told us they were worms (and then showed the tub of worms to us) before we’d eaten the fritters, we never would have known. As it was, even the knowledge of what we were eating wasn’t enough to mar the fantastic flavor. They were really good.
Marinated, then grilled on the street. I had mine with extra hot sauce.
Mushrooms wrapped in rice paper, with fried onions and mint leaves, and dipped in fish sauce. Probably my favorite dish of the evening. So fresh, so clean — I could have eaten this stuff all night.
Somehow frogs legs came up, and we discovered, ironically, that Vanessa, the sole Frenchwoman in the group, had never eaten frogs legs. The rest of us had eaten them and were all game for trying them out Vietnamese style. I’d forgotten how annoying their little bones are, but the flavor was still wonderful. Tastes similar to chicken, but with a consistency more like lobster.
Sugar cane juice
The guy ran the cane through a press several times to squeeze out all the juice. A cup of pure sugar can’t be bad, right?
Balls of sticky rice paste with sugar kernels
And while you’re drinking sugar cane juice, why not eat some little balls of rice paste with chunks of sugar inside? They’re yummy and have the faintest hint of licorice.
We had eel in two formats tonight: dried (which you can see in the bin, on top) and not dried (in the soup). Both were good, though I preferred the soup, since the dried eel was rather tough and looked less appetizing.
Nem chua ran
This is pork that has been fermented for a few days and then fried on the spot in front of us, with super-spicy dipping sauce.
Jack fruit, avocado, dragon fruit, watermelon, pineapple, papaya, and a bunch of other fruits that I never quite figured out. With condensed milk. What a wonderful way to end the evening!
Only the evening won’t really be over until tomorrow morning. Our guide’s parting gift was a “wedding cake” that we’re supposed to take home and eat in the morning (or sometime in the next three days, which apparently is the shelf-life of this thing).