Let me tell you one thing: if you need a change of mind, if you feel like forgetting about it all, head straight to Vietnam for as long as you can. You could also head to your local pool, but Vietnam is actually more fun.
A "short" twelve-hour flight away from Paris lies everything you might be in the mood for: beautiful scenery, happy and respectful people, and the most important: unbelievable food. I used to say that I could eat Vietamese food all day, every day, and that is precisely what I did for a full ten days (well, apart from that odd bag of crispy M&Ms). I would gladly eat only Vietnamese food for the next ten days too.
Food in Vietnam shines by its simplicity. Fresh herbs, vegetables, fish sauce, and meat or fish somehow come together to create a vast array of dishes that all taste different. With simplicity comes balance: no one ingredient overpowers the dish, and they all seem to be playing an equal role in the final taste explosion going on right there in your mouth.
What do we, in Europe and America, know about Vietnamese food? There are pretty large Vietnamese communities in both France and the United States, so some dishes are quite readily available. In the US, for example, pho and banh mi (forgive the lack of accents) have become popular in recent years, and even pretty trendy in larger cities. Although I didn't have any banh mi in Vietnam--a fluffy baguette filled with pork, pork paté and vegetables--I did indulge in pho. Pho is made of broth, flavored with star anise and cinnamon, in which thin pieces of beef and rice noodles are cooked. Add some fresh herbs, and you've got the breakfast of champions, Vietnamese-style. I'll admit I'm more of a sweet breakfast type of girl, but that didn't stop me from having a few pho in the early mornings.
In France, Vietnamese cuisine is known extensively through what we call "nems" and bo bun.
Nems are fried spring rolls, and can be found in pretty much any pan-Asian restaurant here. I've had some pretty good nems in France, but nothing can beat the incredible version we had a Quan An Ngon, in Saigon. The person who came up with the concept of Quan An Ngon rounded up his favorite street food vendors and put them in one place--a dazzling tree-filled courtyard, with an impressive selection of all-around great street food. And most importantly, you don't feel like you've stepped into a tourist trap: large tables of locals quickly fill up the massive restaurant.
The nems were large in size, and perfectly crispy on the outside, without a hint of unappealing greasiness on the palate. What about the inside? Well, perfect: a melt-in-your-mouth blend of rice vermicelli, carrots, ground pork, and spices. Ooh, I would go back to Quan An Ngon just for the fried spring roll, called Cha Gio in Southern Vietnam.
While we're at it, let me let you in on another amazing dish from our new favorite place: Ban Xeo, pictured below. Once again, simplicity reigns: a large crêpe-like disk is made from rice flour and turmeric, and stuffed with pork, bean sprouts and shrimp. For those looking for a little crunch, shrimp in Vietnam is often eaten unshelled--I got used to it!
To make your ban xeo experience perfect, the pancake is cut into three or four pieces. They are then wrapped in rice paper or a lettuce leaf, with fresh mint and Thai basil, and dipped into a sauce of shredded carrots, fish sauce, and chili peppers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I could have eaten this all day...but with so much to try and so little time, I had to go on to the next dish. The flavors are fresh, and there is a contrast in the textures that makes it a real enjoyment to eat.
Now that I've made myself hungry all over again, I think it's time for a snack. Vietnamese fish dishes and desserts to come--meanwhile, are you familiar with cuisine from Vietnam? Let me know about your favorite dishes!
Quan An Ngon: 160 Pasteur, Ho Chi Minh City