It was the first days of March. For months, the greys of Chicago’s streets bled into the greys of Chicago’s grass. At this time of year, you live life bound up, keeping your head down, focusing on the quickest route between point A and point B. The next twentysome hours would be spent engulfed in the dull tones of international travel, which I suspect is a psychological tactic, to lull travelers into obedience. I passed through customs and was struck by the Technicolor world in front of me through sliding glass doors. When I finally emerged from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport into Sài Gòn, I stepped into Oz.
After close to 9,000 miles in the air and on the ground, my first destination in Vietnam was Pasteur Street Brewing Company. During the two weeks that straddled my time in Sài Gòn and Hanoi, my choices for beer would be reduced predominantly to Asian macro Lagers. With this in mind, I used Pasteur Street as an endpoint. I could conveniently say I used it as a way to familiarize myself with this new city, but I also just really wanted a beer. Down an alley and up a very narrow set of stairs I entered the long thin main floor of Pasteur Street. Packed and with no seats to be found, I skirted to the second floor, the smoking section. If finding a brewery that’s first floor was on the second level of a building wasn’t weird enough, drinking in a public bar around smokers took this evening to a next level. My friends don’t even smoke inside their homes anymore.
One taste of Pasteur’s Jasmine IPA, and life was familiar again. A highly sessionable, balanced beer, it sports floral notes and a slight citrus pith. It’s a great beer to satisfy the experienced American craft palate, but also one that’s approachable for a new market. Beyond the Jasmine IPA, they also featured a Dragonfruit American Wheat, a dry, peppery Saison that was a refreshing antidote to the city’s heat, and a Double IPA with a citrusy bitter punch. Drinking away some of the residual travel tension, I stopped and realized the White Stripes were playing on the speakers downstairs. As I was listening, someone passed me wearing a Founders shirt. Home’s never really that far away, as it turns out.
Only three days into my trip, Sài Gòn was starting to wear me down. Vietnam swept me away, and I was determined to keep up. I wanted to see everything, eat everything, and not miss a beat. I was hitting a wall, so I made the decision to aggressively relax.
A bowl of Bún Mộc helped revive me. One of the few pork-based soups to be found in Vietnam, Bún Mộc is a bit simpler than the far more popular Phở. This bowl had a light pork and mushroomy broth accented with caramelized onions. Like all other dishes in Vietnam, the Bún Mộcwas served with herbs, an acid of some kind, and chili. Vietnamese food gives you an amazing base, but encourages you to craft to your personal experience. Reinvigorated, I hailed a cab for my last stop in Sài Gòn before my departure for Đà Lạt—BiaCraft Artisan Ales.
While Pasteur Street is located in the densest part of an incredibly busy city, BiaCraft is nestled in the quieter District 2. A big, airy taproom opens up into the street, much like most other businesses Vietnam. Pasteur Street is located up a thin flight of stairs, halfway down a discrete alley, and it feels like a secret. BiaCraft was a welcoming beacon, its sign shining bright, its open front revealing an inviting message over the bar: “ICE COLD BEER.”
American-style Pale Ales are generally not my first choice. Call it a response to the unrelenting humidity of Sài Gòn, or perhaps an answer to the isolation of solo international travel, but BiaCraft’s Dung Choc Tao Pale Ale hit the spot. The beer’s malt sweetness and big Cascade flavor are reminiscent of the many Midwestern Pales I’ve enjoyed back home.
BiaCraft’s embrace of the small, local craft brewing community was a highlight of their menu. It featured not only their catalog of American Pale Ales, Ambers, Belgian Wits and Blondes, but also offerings from Pasteur and transient breweries in the area. One standout was the smooth and chocolatey Fuzzy Logic Porter.
Like the menu, the crowd was diverse. A variety of different languages from all around the world blended together into a familiar hum found at a busy brewery tap room. I quickly found myself speaking to a brewer from Fuzzy Logic. Enjoying a cold beer after a long day, and touching base with the BiaCraft crew, he was sharing some of their resources and wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page. A spirit of collaboration and cooperation seems to be as commonplace in craft beer culture as stainless tanks and yeast strains.
Crossing the street in Sài Gòn is an exercise in trust. Driving in the States is an aggressive act, even when people consider themselves “defensive” drivers. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “Please don’t hit me.” In Vietnam, the attitude is different—they won’t hit you. The key is, you need to trust them, because the second you don’t is when you’re in danger. The one time I almost got hurt on my trip is when I flinched, lost faith, stopped. I became pretty damn faithful after that.
On the ride to Đà Lạt, I took in the pine and earth-rich air, marveling at the hilly, tree-covered terrain of the Lâm Đồng province. The nature and the silence was nice. Đà Lạt was built by the French as a resort town—a place of respite for French aristocrats. Đà Lạt ’s architecture echoes Art Deco and Swiss Alp influences. Gone is the rigid grid road system of a dense metropolis, replaced with the meandering, relaxed rhythms of twisting streets. Đà Lạt felt like I had been whisked away to Europe, and with that, everything started to feel unfamiliar. But with the streets lined with food vendors and coffee shops, unfamiliar was just fine.
I can’t overstate coffee’s omnipresence in Vietnam. While walking down the street, it’s not uncommon to pass two coffee shops on one city block on the same side of the street. Most people’s impression of “Vietnamese coffee” is based on brewing style as opposed to the qualities of a specific bean. Brewed strongly and served with sweetened condensed milk, this trademark style was born out of necessity. When the French started planting coffee in Vietnam’s Lâm Đồng province, the best beans were usually saved for the French, and the remainder was given to the Vietnamese. Likewise, fresh milk was at a premium, and the French hoarded that, too. As a result, the Vietnamese roasted their lower quality beans very darkly, and served then with the only milk they had on hand—sweetened condensed. The result is an extremely satisfying cup of coffee, with notes of caramel and chocolate, both milk and dark. The dark roast of the coffee provides a bitter balance to the sweetness of the condensed milk. It never loses its coffee qualities—it just gains a different set of complexities.
The Đà Lạt city market during the day wasn’t remarkably different than any of the other markets I came across during my visit in Vietnam. But at night, it became the heart of the city. It reminded me of the county fairs of my Nebraskan youth. No gawdy rides or games of “chance,” but more the way the people of the city convened, walking, talking, and eating—a lot. There was a unique sense of community when the market came alive at night. Looking around, I saw children running and playing with abandon, awkward teenagers congregating in groups, and elderly couples taking it all in from benches in the park. It was a nice and not unwelcome shock to have such an unexpected familiar feeling feeling from my youth in this small city nestled in the mountains of Vietnam.
The star of of my evening was a regional dish called Bahn Trang nuong Đà Lạt. Made out of rice paper, grilled like a pizza, and served like a thin burrito, this walk-and-eat dish is unique to Đà Lạt. A round piece of rice paper goes on the grill first. It’s quickly topped with an egg that’s immediately scrambled while cooking. While this is happening, the rest of the ingredients are added—chives, mayo, dried fish flakes, hot sauce, and slices of cheap hot dogs. While the eggs are still a bit wet, the whole thing is folded and quickly wrapped in a piece of newspaper. It takes a few tries before you learn how to eat it without burning your hands and mouth.
In the market center, vendors launched small, illuminated helicopter toys into the air, preying on parents of the delighted children giggling as each toy launches into the air. The sky was dotted with these toys and stars. Somewhere in the back of my mind the piano part of Alan Toussaint's “Southern Nights” played. A fitting farewell.
At around 10:00am on my first full day in Đà Nẵng, I was lying in a comfortable beach chair under a faded 7-Up umbrella. As I sat staring off into the distance, trying to remember the last time I saw an ocean horizon that wasn’t filled with luxury cruisers, oil tankers, and off shore drilling rigs, the kind woman who runs the refreshment stand startled me with an old Igloo cooler. After a small egg Bánh Mì for breakfast, the cooler held my mid-morning snack—a pair of ice cold Tiger Lagers. The waves crashed, and I was content.
A couple hours and beers later, I found myself on the move and hungry. I walked by a restaurant with stairs populated by colorful plastic bowls. The proprietor flagged me down, grabbed me by the arm, and walked around these bowls, each filled with freshly caught fish. After a few quick gestures (one to the fish, one to a grill, one to a large battered pot), I got the drill.
I pointed to a bowl full of snails and a shrimp-like crustacean. I’m still not sure what the latter was. Before long, two dishes were set in front of me. One piled high with snails, the other held the mysterious crustacean. I had little idea how to eat either, so I proceeded like any red blooded American—aggressively and messily. Thirty minutes later I finally pushed away from the table, beard full of butter, garlic, lemongrass and remnants of fresh herbs. I was ready for another round of Tigers and maybe a beach snooze.
Đà Nẵng is modern and new and the people are nice. I found friendliness wherever I traveled in the country, but the pleasantness of the people ofĐà Nẵng was more engaging. Picture Kansas City, except with one of the world’s greatest beaches.
At breakfast toward the end of my stay at Đà Nẵng, my host suggested I go to Hội An, saying I could travel by bus, or even a car service if I had the money. Considering that a private car and a driver for the day was 20 bucks, it seemed like an easy decision, but I was suspicious. I knew of Hội An mostly through an old episode of No Reservations where it was raved about as a magical highlight of a country Anthony Bourdain was already very fond of. But my preliminary research was very divided—some raved of the city’s charm, others bemoaned its being overrun by tourists.
My visit would convert me to the latter group. Hội An struck me as a section of Epcot—built to sell me things. By this point, I had been in many city markets, and was very fond of most of them, so I was used to being in areas geared to sell. But in Hội An, I felt like I had a dollar sign over my head. To be fair, I only walked around a few blocks, so it isn’t wasn’t a varied and nuanced experience, but I wasn’t in the mood to spend a ton of time exploring. I was leaving Đà Nẵng the next day, and I wanted to bid a fond farewell.
My driver was paid through the afternoon and we had a couple hours to kill, so I ducked into a restaurant that served a version of chicken and rice heavily influenced by Hainanese chicken and rice, which itself has a cult-like following. The greatness lied in its simplicity. Older, flavorful, pastured-raised chickens are simmered to make a simple stock, which is reduced and used as the base for the rice. The chicken is then chopped, and served with the rice, herbs, chili, lime and a side of stock. While many just drank the stock, I used mine to add even more flavor to the dish. The paste, a mixture of lemongrass and a chili remarkably similar to ancho, provided heat and smokiness, while the limes added acid, and the herbs freshness. This dish worked on a holistic level, and went a long way to ameliorate my attitude.
Armed with a clearer mind and a full stomach, I was eager to get back to Đà Nẵng for one last walk on the beach and a quiet night in this pleasant city.
Hanoi is an old city that exists in bursts. Instead of the huge condo developments found in the States, thin buildings with their own individual personality hold court, set apart by the differences in architectural trends. The street vendors exist only during peak hours, and only prepare the necessary amount of food for the hours they’ll be open. The markets only bring product needed for the day, and sell only vegetables or animals that have been harvested just hours earlier. Immediacy is paramount. Nothing lingers.
How appropriate, then, that bia hơi is the trademark drink. Like Vietnamese coffee, bia hơi was born out of necessity. While rice wine was historically the drink of choice, things changed when Vietnam was entangled with a series of wars in the mid-20th century. The rice that was being fermented for wine was re-prioritized for food. Bia hơi was born. It’s a very light lager—clocking in around 3%—brewed with malt and rice, very lightly hopped, and which ferments in about a week. It’s cheap, too, right around 25 cents a glass.
Bia hơi is also the name of a place. These open areas, filled with plastic chairs and tables, usually with another bia hơi located right across the corner, are places to gather. Bia hơis buzz with energy, the background scored with intense debate and friendly revelry. Colleagues gather for a quick post-work drink, families gather for an affordable evening out. This is beer culture, which puts culture first.
Everything in the Old Quarter has life. Nothing is flush. From the stories of buildings to the tiles of the sidewalks, there is a very specific place where one thing ends and another begins. You would be hard pressed to find two sections of curb that are uniform. In Hanoi, making each step from sidewalk to street its own experience.
Phở is a bit different in north Vietnam. The Phở we have in the States, at least in Chicago, is more similar to the phở in south Vietnam. It’s very fragrant with anise and cinnamon, served with a huge plate of herbs. Like much else in that part of the country, Phở in the north is more to the point. While aspects of the spices are there, they are perfectly balanced and take a back seat. The soup itself is topped with some fresh herbs, as much as the cook thinks you need—it’s their soup, of course, and they know best. The dominant flavor is the meat, in this case, beef. The meek-looking broth—simple and clear, dotted with tiny pools of fat—is deceiving. The beef flavor is intense, and gets to the point, bluntly putting its best flavor forward.
I absolutely fell in love with Hanoi. When I booked my 10-day stay, I thought I might branch off into the surrounding cities. I didn’t. I couldn’t be satiated. The last night, sad to leave, I found myself snapping pictures of everything remotely interesting. No composition, no thought, I just wanted to take as much of the city with me as possible.
In the end, Vietnam wasn’t something I could harness. It’s best absorbed. I kept a list of the small things I experienced on that trip. The smoky taste of Hanoi Bahn Mi’s, the colors of Da Lat’s dirt, the unspoken languages of street food vendors. These are things I knew would fade away if they weren’t documented. I was right, too. Even a few months later the details of the trip are starting to fly away. Vietnam isn’t something to control or capture. It’s a place to taste, hear, smell, watch—and then do it all over again.