I'm always hungry when it comes to having something sweet--before a meal, afterwards, or anytime in between. I guess the Vietnamese are, too: and here we embark on our last leg of this trip through Vietnamese cuisine.
If I tried summing up sweet foods and drinks in Vietnam, I would limit myself to two ingredients: beans and sweetened condensed milk. Then again, that would be like saying French desserts are butter and eggs, which is pretty uninformative. Here's my try at explaining what desserts I did have, and those that were pretty much everywhere and which I didn't indulge in:
First, let's start out with cakes. It seems French colonization left a hefty mark on pastry shops around the country. If you're on a trip to Vietnam and looking for a celebratory cake, say, for your non-birthday (which is an occasion I quite enjoying celebrating), one of your options is bound to be an Opéra. The Opéra is a classic French cake, which we've discussed before. It's filled with delicious buttercream, and it's quite easy to understand why when the French left, the Opéra stayed behind. Keep the best and toss the rest!
Amongst the fancy cakes lie a great number of sweet breads, fluffy and yeasty like a nice brioche. Keep digging a little further...and you just might end up with my favorite of all desserts: the bean-filled cake. I suspect these are more widely available in the North, where bean cakes are a specialty. Would you believe me if I said that these were so good we went back three times? Does that even surprise you coming from me? Probably not, seeing as that I also eat chocolate about four times a day.
If you're a fan of Japanese treats filled with red bean paste, this is for you. See that crisp outer shell? A very thin layer of sturdy yet tender dough is topped with sesame seeds and an egg wash for the appealing shine. The treasure lies inside... whether you choose red bean or lotus seed paste (although it could have been white bean paste too, to be honest), you're in for a treat. Although these looked nothing like moon cakes, which typically have an intricate design on the top and are sold throughout the Fall in Vietnam and China, the basic construction and ingredients were the same. If you're in Hanoi, don't miss this: find the bakery nearly opposite Cha Ca La Vong, on Cha Ca Street.
More often than snacking on food, it seems that many Vietnamese locals snack on drinks, and the Vietnamese coffee in particular. I'm not a coffee drinker in the slightest, but my sweet tooth took over and dictated that I should have at least one a day during our last days in Con Dao. Picture the tiniest amount of coffee, poured into a tall glass--I'd say around 1/8 of a cup, no more. Now, open a small can of sweetened condensed milk. Simply pour the contents into a glass. What's that you're thinking? A whole (albeit small) can, into one single glass? For one person? That's exactly it.
Top it off with ice cubes and here you have it: the Vietnamese iced coffee. After one glass, you might come to understand why people aren't munching on cakes in the street. Even for a sweet tooth monster like myself, it can get pretty filling. I didn't try iced cocoa in Vietnam, but I have some form of longing regret in the back of my mind. What if they added sweetened condensed milk to that, too? Oh, the joys I'll never know of. I guess I have to go back.
And on my way back there, I'll have to stop by the candy stands. Candy. Everywhere. In all different shapes and sizes, colors and flavors. I felt like diving into the barrels of individually-wrapped candy, but I don't believe that's an acceptable way to act in Vietnam. Although I suspect nobody would have noticed if I just hid inside a barrel, chomping down on candy until my head poked through the pile.
There you go. Yet another reason to fly back. Anyone care to come along?